Assimilation and Indian Names

During the last part of the nineteenth century the emphasis of the United States Indian policy was on assimilation. According to this philosophy, American Indians, just like other immigrants to the United States, should assimilate into “mainstream” America. One of the concerns at this time was the lack of surnames among Indians.  

American Indians have often noted that non-Indians have an obsession with private property. Government concerns with Indian surnames stems from this concern. The concern for private property goes beyond the individual accumulation of property and includes the ability to pass this property on to the property owner’s descendents, thus helping to create family fortunes.  Family lineages are an important part of private property.

In 1887, the Congress passed the General Allotment Act (Dawes Act) with the intent of assimilating Indians by making them land-owning farmers. The idea of the Dawes Act is to break up the reservations by giving each Indian family an allotment of land, similar to the homesteads given to non-Indian settlers.

In breaking the reservations up into individually owned allotments, the first step was to put together a tribal roll. Regarding Indian names on these tribal rolls, Sioux physician Charles Eastman wrote:

“Originally, the Indians had no family names, and confusion has been worse confounded by the admission to the official rolls of vulgar nicknames, incorrect translations, and English cognomens injudiciously bestowed upon children in the various schools.”

Government concern for Indian names, particularly surnames, was directly connected with allotments. The allotments came under territory and state inheritance laws. All of these laws were based on Euro-American family relationships and therefore the result was confusion if an allottee died intestate and local officials had to determine the heirs.

In 1890, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs ordered Indian names on the reservations to be changed so that each Indian would be given an English Christian name and retain the surname. Surnames were to be translated to English and shortened if they were too long. Care was to be taken to avoid translations of Indian names that might be offensive to non-Indians. The new names were to be explained to the Indians.

One of the ways of creating the new Indian surnames was to use the name of the father as the family name. This also meant that the Indian agents had to attempt to stop the traditional practice of assigning Indian names. This practice ignored the fact that many Indian nations were matrilineal, that is, a person belonged to the mother’s clan or family.

On some reservations, the Indian agent changed names such as Lone Bear to Lon Brown, Night Horse to Henry Lee Tyler, and Yellow Calf to George Caldwell. On some reservations, Indians were given names such as “Cornelius Vanderbilt” and “William Shakespeare.” Presidential names were also popular and so a number of Indians were named George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and others.

On the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, the Indian agent reported that:

“Now every family has a name. Every father, mother; every husband and wife and children bears the last names of these people; now property goes to his descendant.”

He also reported:

“During my administration I took a census of over two thousand names and had them all change, though it took over two years to accomplish the task.”

In noting that Indians often change names in response to events in their lives, Frank Terry, the Superintendent of the Crow Boarding School wrote in 1897:

“Hence it will be seen that the Indian names are nothing, a delusion, and a snare, and the practice of converting them into English appears eminently unwise.”

He also noted that the requirement to give Indians American-style names had not been uniformly carried out:

“While some have made earnest efforts to carry out the wishes of the Department in this particular, others have treated the matter as one of little or no concern. In many cases no attempt seems ever to have been made to systematize the names of the Indians, and in many others where such attempt was made the correct names for want of attention on the part of officers in charge, have been forgotten or permitted to fall into disuse.”

In addition to having the Indian agents give Indians more “civilized” names, the government also assigned new names to Indian students in both their boarding schools and in their day schools.

In 1890, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs published a detailed set of rules for Indian schools. Schools were to give Indian students surnames so that as they could become property owners it would be easier to fix lines of inheritance. Since most teachers could not pronounce or memorize names in native languages, and they did not understand these names when translated into English, it was not uncommon to give English surnames as well as English first names to the students.

In the school established for the Quileute on the Coast of Washington, the schoolmaster gave the students names from the Bible and from American history.

Many Indian families today have stories about how their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents got their surnames. While the government intent was to eradicate the traditional names and naming procedures, what has instead resulted in many cases is a naming duality: the formal names with surnames that the government requires, and traditional names still given in the traditional ways.

Personal Names Among the Indian Nations East of the Mississippi

( – promoted by navajo)

Personal names among the Indian nations east of the Mississippi River were quite different from European names. There was little concern for maintaining family wealth through inheritance and thus there were no surnames. The process of naming an individual varied greatly among the tribes, but the names tended to be personal, reflecting the attributes of the individual.  

Southeastern Woodlands:

The Southeastern Woodlands is an area bounded by the Ozark-Ouachita Highlands of Arkansas and Missouri and the dry plains of eastern Texas on the west and the low plateaus of Kentucky and Tennessee and the interior plains of Illinois on the north. The eastern boundary is the Atlantic Ocean and southern boundary is the Gulf of Mexico. The Southeastern Culture Area includes the present states of Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, western North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, southern and eastern Arkansas, Tennessee, and the portions of Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky that border the Mississippi River. Prior to European contact nearly two million Indian people lived in this area. The Southeastern Culture Area was the home of skilled farmers who lived in permanent villages.

Five of the Southeastern Indian nations – Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole – are sometimes called the “five Civilized Tribes”. The designation “civilized” is an indication that they had acquired many elements of European cultures and were the most acculturated Indian tribes during the nineteenth century.

The designation “Creek” is a European concept which emerged during the eighteenth century to designate the Indian people who were living along the creeks and rivers in Alabama, Georgia, and northern Florida. While these people have a cultural continuity which reaches back to the mound building cultures of this area, the concept of a Creek “Nation” or “Confederacy” is something which did not emerge until after the European invasion. In reality, the Creek were several autonomous groups. They can be viewed as a confederacy made up of several ethnic and linguistic groups, including the Alabama, Apalachee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Hitchiti, Koasati, Natchez, Shawnee, Tunic, Yamasee, and Yuchi.

Among the Creek, a man would pass through four stages of life which are analogous with the seasons of the year. First, a male child, in the springtime of his life, would receive an infant’s name and was educated by his elders. This first name might be something like “little rabbit” or “smells of urine.” Then, in the summer of his life, the young man was to provide for the people and to defend them against enemies. During this time he would receive a war name. This name marks the transition from boy to man. Creek chief George Washington Grayson wrote:

“This name the young men are very proud of, since by it they are boys no longer, but men, ever hereafter to be so recognized and respected by their acquaintances.”

During the autumn of his life, he was to serve as a leader, advisor, or spokesman of the people. Finally, in the winter of his life, he would return to his village and clan, closing the cycle by passing on to a new generation all of his wisdom, knowledge, and history.

Unlike the boys, a Creek girl would usually retain her name throughout her life.

Northeastern Woodlands

The Northeastern Woodlands is a land of heavily forested rolling hills and rounded mountains, salt marshes of waving grass, calm lakes, tumbling brooks, surf-beaten beaches, and rocky coves. Archaeologists report that Indian people have inhabited this area for more than 10,000 years. About 4,000 years ago the people living in this area began to adopt agriculture. By the time of the European invasion, most of the Indian people of the Northeast got most of their calories from the crops which they raised. The three most important crops in the Northeast – corn, beans, squash – were known as the Three Sisters among the Iroquois. The Northeastern Indians raised about 15 different varieties of corn, 60 varieties of beans, and 8 forms of squash.

In the Algonquian tribes names are seen as having power and outsiders – including the Europeans – were kept from knowing a person’s name. When asked directly by Europeans for their names, many Narragansett would simply reply: “I have forget my name.” Instead of personal names, titles were often used by outsiders.

Individuals’ names, among the Algonquians, changed during the course of their lives to symbolize the changes in their personal status. Children were not named at birth, but were named during a public feast some time after birth.  

After a period of isolation marking the transition from child to adult, the Narragansett were given new names. These new names would often reflect the individual’s appearance and/or personality.  These names could be carried for the rest of their lives or until the names no longer suited them.

Among the Virginia Algonquians, children received their first name shortly after birth. Among the Powhatan, a baby boy would receive his first name from his mother. Additional names were later acquired and reflected special merits or abilities. The father of a Powhatan boy would give him a name that would reflect his growing skills as a hunter. When the Powhatan man would do some remarkable act, he would receive a name reflecting that act.

Among most of the tribes, children were not named at birth. Among the Ojibwa, for example, a child was not named for a year or two and, occasionally, a child might be ten or twelve years old before being given a name.  Among the Ojibwa, an elder would be asked to give the child a name. This was not an easy task: the name was expected to be an identity which would later become a reputation. Naming often had strong spiritual significance and could be connected with a dream or vision.

Among the Siouan-speaking Ho-Chunk, the newborn child was immediately given a birth name in accordance with the order of birth. That is, the first male child would be named K’u´nu and the first female child Hi´nu; the second male child He´nu and the second female child Wi´ha; and so on. There were six male birth names and six female birth names. Sometime after birth, the child would be given a clan name at a special feast held for this purpose. In most instances, this name was bestowed upon the child by an elder selected by the father.  

Among the Eastern Sioux in Minnesota during the 17th century, boys were usually named after an elder in the father’s family and girls were named after the mother’s family.

Among the Shawnee, a child was first named by an elder from a different clan. This name was publicly announced at a feast given by the parents for their friends and relatives. Later in life, individuals could change their names to obtain better luck. Again, the name would be announced at a special feast.

Among the Fox, a child was named shortly after birth by an elderly relative. The name was taken from those belonging to the father’s clan but not held by any living person. After going to war, a man might take a new name. A woman might take a new name according to a dream which she received.

The Kickapoo child was traditionally named several months after birth. For the first child born to a couple, the father would select the person who gave the name, while the mother would select the person who gave the name to the second child. While the namer generally chose a name belonging to his or her clan, the name must first be validated through a vision. The name would be announced at a public ceremony which would identify the child as member of the Kickapoo Nation.

The mother of a Miami child would summon an old woman to give the child a name. The name would usually come from a dream which revealed the adult traits of the child. Often the name would signify an animal or natural phenomenon which had a relationship to the child’s clan. Later in life, an adult could change a name to avoid illness or misfortune by asking a friend to give a new name in exchange for a gift.

A Potawatomi child would be given a name about a year after birth. This name would be selected from available clan names and would thus connect the child to the clan.

Plateau Indian Names

( – promoted by navajo)

The Plateau is the area between the Cascade Mountains and the Rocky Mountains. It is bounded by the Fraser River to the north and the Blue Mountains to the South. It is an area that covers eastern Washington, northern Idaho, western Montana, and parts of Oregon and British Columbia. The Indian nations who inhabited this area have cultural ties to the Indian nations of the Pacific Coast and many of the Plateau nations interacted with the tribes of the Northern Plains.

Among the Plateau Indian nations, it was common for an individual to change names several times during the course of their life. Typically a person would have at least three names. If a name became inappropriate to a person’s personality, it was changed.  

Among many of the other Plateau tribes, children were not named when very young, because of infant and toddler mortality. Therefore, naming ceremonies were not usually held until the child was between the ages of six months and two years.

Among the Kootenai, children were normally given names by their parents at birth. Occasionally a council of elders would be consulted to suggest a name. The name often reflected the war honors of a relative. The name given at birth was usually kept for life. However, some medicine people did acquire a second name. Also, if a person felt that a name was unfortunate, it could be changed.  

Among the Wishram, the naming ceremony bestowed “personhood” upon the child: it provided the child with a genealogical and social identity. The name would come from a deceased relative and would be a name that had “lain fallow” for a period of time.

Among the tribes of the Dalles area, the naming ceremony borrowed from the feasting and gift-giving of the Northwest Coast tribes.

Among the Nez Perce children often were named after notable ancestors. They would be given these names with the hope that the child would develop similar qualities. New names might later be acquired which would recognize an important deed, a personal attribute, or a guardian spirit. The Nez Perce considered names to be private possessions of the person or the family.

Among the Flathead names often came from visions. If an individual had a dream or vision that brought good luck, then the individual might be named for it.  These visions came from a guardian or tutelary spirit. Often the spirit helpers would give an individual two names-one for use in the tribe, and the other a secret, spirit name to be used only when calling for help from his guardian spirit.

After the Flathead Reservation was created by the U.S. government in 1855, non-Indians would often be confused about Indian names. The names during this era were often a mixture of European names, influenced by Catholicism, and tribal names which were sometimes translated into English. For example, a Pend d’Oreille named Mescal Michel might marry a Flathead woman and settle among her people. The Flathead might them give him the name Many Bears. He joins a party of Nez Perce who are travelling to the Great Plains to hunt buffalo and they call him Shot His Horse in the Head. The Catholic priests baptize him and give him the name Joseph Peter Michel. The American settlers in the area call him Michel Joe. Thus one man might be known by different names among the different groups on the reservation.  

Northwest Coast Indian Names

( – promoted by navajo)

The Indian nations along the Northwest Coast area of Washington, British Columbia, and Washington were very different than other Indian nations. Life in these Indian nations centered on the sea and its abundant resources. Unlike the Indian nations in other areas, the social life among the Northwest Coast Indians was based on rank and power. Names often reflect this hierarchical organization.

Names are extremely important to the people of the Northwest Coast and a set of names brings with it a social and cultural reality. When one inherits a certain name, one inherits the status that accompanies the name. The set of names within a village was constant, with a flow of living human beings running continually through it, with people occupying the names during their lifetimes. Names are important family property and they are used only on special occasions.  

Names were also associated with social stratification and wealth. The right to use a particular name was a form of wealth: ancestral tribal names were inherited. The right to use any name was determined by descent.

Among the Tlingit, a male child was traditionally given a name at birth by his maternal uncle. He would keep this personal name throughout his life. However, when a nephew replaced his uncle, he was then given an honorific clan name. This is a name which was considered sacred and which was used only on ceremonial occasions. These names are associated with the totem animals and their symbols.

At puberty, Tshimshian children were given the first of a series of adult names which were selected from names belonging to the mother’s house. The names often had a reference to the father’s crest.

Among the Nuu-chah-nulth, a newborn was traditionally given a baby name. If the child was a boy, then the name would come from the father’s side, and if it was a girl, then it would come from the mother’s side. In some instances, the newborn might also be given a song as well.  

Among the Bella Coola, each name must have originated in connection with an important event. Soon after birth, a name would be bestowed on the child. The name selected for the child must: (1) come from the origin stories of one of the parents’ families, and (2) must not be in use by another family member. While it is possible for two people to have the same name, the names must come from different origins.

Bella Coola names can be transferred from one person to another. A person may have more than one name and each name is associated with certain rights and traditions. If a person transfers a name while still alive, the person gives up all claims to that name. Names can be transferred from a man to a woman and vice versa. At death, a person’s name, or names, could be transmitted to a relative. It was considered important that the owner of a name should know when, by whom, and for what reason the name was first created.

It is not only the human members of the Bella Coola family who are given ancestral names, but also dogs. The first ancestral group had dogs, and these animals had names. Ever since that time their descendants would apply these designations to their own dogs.  As with humans, no two dogs can be given the same name at the same time.

Among the Coast Salish, the child’s first name, usually given when the child began to walk, was of little significance. Names, which were considered to be family property, were given at a potlatch or feast. While a new name could be acquired at any time, many would take a new name after marriage.

Among the Kwakwaka’wakw, when children were born they were given the name of the place where they were born.  They received their first tribal name at ten months of age. At this time, the baby’s hair was symbolically cut and ceremonies were held to ensure that babies would be safe. When the child was 10 to 12 years old, a third name was obtained. In obtaining this third name, a number of small presents, such as shirts or blankets, would be distributed among the clan or village.

Among the Heiltsuk, a child traditionally received its first name at a potlatch given in its honor. At this time, the chief would dance with the child, holding it aloft to introduce the child and create a place for it within the community. The people who witnessed this ceremony were asked to support the child as it grew up. When the child was older, a second name would be given and the baby name might be passed on to a new child. When a person assumed adult responsibilities and began to contribute to the society, a third name might be given.  

Northern Plains Indians Names

( – promoted by navajo)

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.  


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 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 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.  


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.


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.


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.


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).