Northern Plains Indians Names

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Traditionally men and women among the tribes of the Northern Plains usually carried several names during the course of their lives. Each child would be given a name shortly after birth. As the child grew older and began to acquire unique personal characteristics, another name might be given which reflected these characteristics. Upon entering adulthood, another name was often given which might reflect specific deeds of valor or visions.

The naming customs among the different tribes varied a great deal. Some of these are discussed below.  

Blackfoot:  

Among the Blackfoot, a child would be given a personal name by the mother at the time of birth. Later, the father would arrange with an older relative or an important person in the camp to have the child officially named. A boy would be given his first name in a sweatlodge ceremony when he was a few weeks old. While boys would later acquire new names, girls would retain their names throughout their lives.  

There was also etiquette with regard to asking people their names. Among the Blackfoot, it was considered rude to ask someone their name when in the company of other people. It was felt that this reflected poorly upon the person and made them feel ashamed.

Assiniboine:

Assiniboine babies received a name about 3-4 weeks after birth. The name would usually be given by a successful warrior or a holy man. Among the Assiniboine, girls’ names were generally kept throughout life, but young men frequently received new names in recognition of their first brave deed. The name of a deceased grandfather or other male relative might be given to a warrior who had counted coup many times.

Sarcee (Sarsi):

Among the Sarcee, boys would be given a derogatory name in adolescence and then encouraged to complete a brave deed that would entitle him to receive a man’s name. This man’s name was usually a name which had been owned by a deceased relative.

Arapaho:

Arapaho parents would ask an elder to choose a name for their child. This name and the accompanying prayers by the elders would help to ensure the child’s future success.

Missouri River Tribes:

Among the Missouri River village tribes (Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara), an infant was traditionally first given a name within ten days after birth. If a child died without being named, it would return to a spirit home to wait for an opportunity to be born again.  

Among the Hidatsa, the first child was traditionally born in the mother’s lodge and was named by the maternal grandfather. The name given to the newborn was usually one associated with the grandfather’s medicine bundle. During the naming ceremony, the child would be introduced to the father’s clan – the Hidatsa are matrilineal which means that the child would belong to the mother’s clan – and the spirit associated with the grandfather’s medicine bundle would be asked to bless the child.

Among the Arikara, children were named shortly after birth by an older relative or by the mid-wife. This name might come from names associated with the family’s medicine bundle or from the midwife’s medicine.  

Crow:

Among the Crow, a child was named four days after birth by a respected elder. The elder would paint the baby’s face, then lift the baby four times before giving the name. The baby and the mother would be smudged with bear root. Later in life, a person’s name might be changed to reflect a vision, a noteworthy battle exploit, or some personal peculiarity. Names were considered personal property, the same as song and paintings. Men would change their names to call attention to war deeds.

For the Crow, words have power and thus a name has power. Thus, the name might be bestowed upon a child as an indication of the kind of life or a particular ability desired for that child.

Cree:

Shortly after the birth of a Cree child, its parents would host a naming feast. An elder-usually a male for a male child and a female for a female child-with recognized spiritual powers would be asked to give the child a name. After singing a song, the elder would take the child and pronounce its name. The name was usually derived from one of the elder’s visions. The infant would then be passed from arm to arm around the lodge. Each person would take the baby, address it by name, and speak a wish for its future happiness.

As with many other tribes, it was (often still is) considered impolite to ask someone their name. The Cree feel that if one mentions one’s own name, the spiritual guardians of the name will be offended.

Cheyenne:

There was no infant naming ceremony among the Cheyenne and nicknames for babies were used for several years. At the age of five or six, a child’s ears would be ceremonially pierced and at this time the child might be given a formal name which was selected by the father’s oldest sister from names on the father’s side of the family. The piercing of ears is a symbolic way of opening the mind to learning, understanding, discipline, and knowledge.

Sioux:

Regarding Sioux names, the Sioux writer and physician Charles Eastman wrote:

“Indian names were either characteristic nicknames given in a playful spirit, deed names, or such as have a religious and symbolic meaning.”

Eastman also reported:

“Names of any dignity or importance must be conferred by the old men, and especially so if they have any spiritual significance.”

Among the Lakota Sioux, children would traditionally have their ears pierced during the Sun Dance. At this time, a new name would be given to the child.  

The Sioux leader Gall was initially given the name Little Cub Bear when his mother noticed that he resembled a grizzly cub in constant motion. Later, when he was seen eating the gallbladder of a freshly killed buffalo, he was given the name Gall. He was also known as The-Man-That-Goes-in-the-Middle and Walks-in-Red-Clothing (sometimes translated as Red Walker).