Sunday, June 13, 2010

Why I Don’t Give or Translate Names

Q: How can I learn my Indian name?
A: Look at your driver’s license. Or birth certificate. Or ask your mother.


Although I’m mixed-blood with lineage from many nations, I identify as Cherokee, and do my best to adhere to Cherokee tradition. In Cherokee custom, a child receives its name between the fourth and seventh day, and is presented to the Seven Directions and the Creator, and introduced by that name. The name is chosen by the grandparents, who will also raise the child, based on several factors: family history, significance of the birth date, and any characteristics the child has shown in its few days of life. It may be a variation on the name of an ancestor. The name is given early, because infant mortality was a big problem, and if the child died without a name, it was believed that it would be harder for the parents to call him and be united in the next world.

A second name might also be given, a spirit or ceremonial name, spoken only in ceremonies, and rarely at that. The result is a “public name” which conceals the “private name.”
The only time that this name is changed, and rarely at that, is in the case of a life-threatening illness. A new name is an attempt to divert the illness or bad fortune away from the patient. “You came to kill Fred? Nope, no Fred around here, don’t know any Fred…”

Parents and grandparents give names. If you ask someone to give you a name, you are asking them to step into that role. You are accepting them as foster parents, and they are accepting you as a foster child. Are you willing to live out that commitment? What if you are given a name that means “Gives His Life For The People”… are you really willing to live up to that? Or will you go shopping for another name?


All languages are living things, which evolve. Names, like other phrases, fall in and out of fashion.

Let me give you an example from a European language, English. You meet someone who tells you he’s from England. He speaks English with the appropriate accent, so, it could be true.
He tells you his name is John. Still cool, John is a common name in England.

Then he tells you that, while he usually keeps it to himself, he’s actually 17th in succession to be king of England.

Alarms should go off now! There’s a procedural rule, well known by a certain class in the UK but not well known elsewhere, that no king may have the name John. There was a King John once, and he was such a disaster, the rule was made that there would never be another. No male child in succession for the throne is given the name John.

Names have histories and meanings. Just as the pretender John would be immediately spotted as a phony by any Brit of a certain status, Native people will spot someone using a name they made up, or given to them by somebody who didn’t understand naming protocols.

Among the Lakota, the eldest daughter was called Winona, more of a title than a name. This was adopted by some of their neighbors. I once went to a séance where a woman claimed to channel the spirit of a recently departed Ojibwe spiritual leader. Suspecting a high level of organic fertilizer, I asked “him” the name of his eldest daughter. “He” replied with the public name, Winona. I said “Not the name she’s known by today, the name YOU gave her as an infant.” The psychic was stumped. Then I asked a few simple questions – in Ojibwe. Strangely, after just a few months of death, the Elder had forgotten even the basics of his Native language.

As Adam and Jamie would say, “Busted!!”

Oh, the parallel Cherokee custom is to name the eldest daughter “Pearl.” She is the treasure of the family. The is originally “Pirl,” borrowed from the Tihanama language, and sometimes also spelled “Purl”.

I once described a prominent Elder named Redwing to another prominent Elder. The first thing the second Elder said was “Redwing isn’t a Cherokee name.” There was no accusation in her tone, just a flat statement. She was right; the man I described was Lumbee/Shawnee. I know another Redwing as well, a Mohawk; both circulate within the Cherokee mixed-blood community, but both were named by non-Cherokee relatives. In the same way, using a made-up name with no legacy in the community will immediately brand you as a pretender. And I’ve heard some doozies!

A woman at a powwow handed me a card that introduced her as “Princess Pocahontas Shining Moon Everlasting,” a medicine woman, healer, and sharmon (sic).

A Cherokee politician was given a belt buckle that appeared to say “Cherokee” in syllabary. The middle letter was actually a very similar letter with a different sound. Instead of “Cherokee”, it spelled out “chicken”. He wore it for months before anybody told him.


People have started giving themselves (or others) names based on baby name books or dictionaries. Unfortunately, they weren’t familiar enough with the language do this. I’ve met several named “Flying Eagle” and “Flying Hawk.” The word they used for “fly” was dvgv which does mean fly – but the insect, not the verb. An “eagle fly” or a “hawk fly” is the parasite that lives on the body of raptors; Cherokees have a four-day procedure to cleanse the bodies of these birds before any part can be used in ceremony, so that the diseases carried by these parasites don’t transfer to the humans. Perhaps their name really was intended to be “blood-sucking parasite.”


The name you have, your legal name, was probably given to you by your family. Why do you need another one? Oh, because yours doesn’t “sound Indian” enough.

My parents named me Brian Wilkes. Brian comes from the Gaelic for raven, Wilkes is a contracted diminutive for wolf. I could translate these into modern English as “Raven Little Wolf.” But if I did that, what would I be claiming, or trying to claim? That I’m suddenly more Indian, more traditional, more full of ancient wisdom than the person called Brian Wilkes? Or perhaps my drums and artwork and writing would sell better if they came from “Raven Little Wolf.”

The time for role-playing has long past. If I change my name, am I not suggesting that my parents got it wrong?

There are semantic layers in all languages, and because names are often drawn from older and historical levels of the language, even archaic variants, names can be a mine field. For example, Frank, Francis, Fran, Francesca and variants all come from a Germanic root word for “free”. If you go by Frank or Fran, fine. Francois or Francesca tell a slightly different story. But if your given name is Free, you were probably conceived at a Grateful Dead concert.


Even parents screw it up sometimes. I met one couple who named their daughter Dhyani after a Cherokee-ish author, thinking it was a Cherokee name. It’s actually a Sanskrit name; the author is a Buddhist, and the five Dhyani Buddhas figure prominently in that denomination.

Sometimes parent name a child from a baby names books. These are notoriously inaccurate on meanings. I met a black-Indian woman who named her daughter Kasha, thinking it was a Cherokee name. Since the adolescent girl was there, I restrained my outburst, which would have been “You named your daughter BUCKWHEAT??” The girl will learn the truth one day, and would have been much happier as Beverley or Betty. One can only but think of Moon Unit Zappa, who once dreamed of changing her name to Mary.

Sometimes Cherokee names are translated or transliterated. The name Asgayadihi has been transliterated as Outacity and translated as Mankiller.

If you weren’t given a Cherokee name by Day 7, it’s possible to have one later, But understand that you’re forming a parent/child bond with the Elder you approach. The name will be given in Cherokee. If it’s given to you in English, accept it as such… to attempt to translate it and use the translation instead shows disrespect.

Someone asked me to translate his name into Cherokee, and claimed he had been given the name in ceremony at Cherokee, NC. I asked who gave him the name. “The head shaman.” Say what? And what was his name “I don’t know everybody just called him ‘Grandfather.’” So, you took a name from somebody you didn’t know, whose name you don’t remember, while you were passing through Qualla on your motorcycle? Something’s definitely missing here.

Another time, an Elder from Cherokee gave a name to a friend’s daughter – in English. Mom asked me to translate it back to Cherokee. I explain why it was in appropriate for me to do that, and that she should try to get back in touch with the Elder who gave the name. The name was Wind Song. While I was going through various options depending on the true meaning, (A song carried in the wind, the wind sings, she sings into the wind, she sings with the wind), she was able to reach the Elder. The Cherokee name was one I might have translated to English as Bird Song rather than Wind Song! Had I given her any of my translations, I would have truly interfered.

My elder sister, who wasn’t given a Cherokee name, jokes that she really wants to be “Princess Summer Fall Winter Spring,” after a puppet on the old Howdy Doody show.


You really want an Indian name? Very simple: do something embarrassing in front of an Indian. You may have pictured yourself as “Grandmother Medicine Eagle Spirit Keeper”, but one moment of flatulence and you’ll be stuck with “Queen Fart-zina” for the rest of your natural life. Eventually, it will even be said in front of you.

Some nicknames will be complimentary, but remember that they are only nicknames. The Creeks and Seminoles in Florida called me Halpattah Hadjo, “Alligator Warrior”, after an incident with a gator when I was a teenager. My Anglo friends simply called me “Gator.” One of my Seminole teachers now calls me “Speaker of Languages” from my humble attempts to learn and teach.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “If I re-name a sheep’s tail a ‘leg’, how many legs does a sheep have? FOUR! Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”

Changing the label on a bottle doesn’t change the contents. If you want to gain respect in the Native community, improve the contents.

Brian Wilkes