“Sioux Names and Their Significance” by Charles Eastman

The venerable Eastman provides elucidation.
⁓The Voice before the Void

“Sioux Names and Their Significance”

from Indian Scout Talks

Charles Eastman

We Sioux had three classes of names; first, birth names; second, honor or public names; third, nicknames. The first indicated the order in which children were born into the family; as “Chaskáy,” first-born son, “Wenónah,” first-born daughter, and so on to the fifth child, who was presumed to be the last. There were a few who carried this childhood name through life.

The nickname usually records some humorous act or odd characteristic of the boy or man. It is seldom a flattering one. There is an imaginary Indian personage called “Wink’tah,” who is supposed to be ever on the watch for an excuse to coin a ridiculous name, and such a name will travel like a prairie fire before its owner is aware of it.

It has been written by white men that an Indian child is called after the first noticeable thing its mother sees after its birth. This is not so as a rule, though it is possible such cases may have occurred. Again, it has been declared that some event occurring near the child’s birth establishes its name. This occasionally happens, but only when the event is of unusual importance.

The child’s “honor name” is properly conferred by the clan medicine-man at a public ceremony, some time after the child is able to walk. Such an Indian christening is announced by the herald, a feast made, and gifts presented to the poor of the tribe, in honor of the occasion. These needy old people in their turn go away singing the praises of the child by his new name.

Such a name usually indicates the distinguishing character or famous deeds of the boy’s ancestors, and its bearer is expected to live up to, defend, and pass it on, unstained. Through this ancient custom, he is early recognized by his tribe, impressed with a sense of his personal responsibility, and inspired with the ambition to be worthy of his ancestry. By giving away their property to those in want, his parents intend to teach him love and good-will toward his fellow-men. But if, when he grows up, the boy fails to sustain his honor name, he is no longer called by it.

If he does not fail, but on the other hand performs some special deed of valor, or wins some distinguished honor on his own account, he may later be given a special “deed name,” and the conferring of such was at one time strictly guarded among the Sioux.

The deed name is generally given by the war chief, and such naming is not accompanied by gifts. A deed requiring great physical courage is often celebrated by giving the name of some fear-inspiring animal, such as Bear or Buffalo, or one of the nobler bird names—those of Eagle, Hawk, and Owl. The character of the exploit, calling for special strength, swiftness, agility, or endurance, helps to determine the name chosen, or adds a qualifying word descriptive of some poetic or picturesque quality in the action. Examples are “Charging Eagle” and “Conquering Bear.”

Not only bird and animal names, but those of the elements, are commonly used to express temperament. The rash, impetuous man may be called “Storm,” or “Whirlwind.” Loftiness and beauty of character is indicated by a name including the word “sky,” or “cloud,” such as “Red Cloud,” “Touch-the-Cloud,” “Blue Sky,” or “Hole-in-the-Day,” all names of well-known chiefs. Sometimes the idea of bravery or swiftness conveyed by the name of animal or bird is combined with another suggestive of dignity, sacredness, mystery, or magic; as, for example, “Thunder Bear,” or “Spirit Buffalo.”

The highest type of brave deed name is represented by “Thunder,” or “Lightning,” in one of its many variations. “Crazy Bull” and “Crazy Horse” stand for utter fearlessness and unconsciousness of danger, rather than madness. Resourcefulness, generosity, and productiveness are expressed in the name of “Earth” with some of its poetic attributes. “Fire” represents daring and war-like qualities. Colors are used in a purely symbolic sense, thus redeeming from any touch of absurdity such names as “Red Wolf” and “Black Eagle.”

Many Indian names have been roughly handled in translation by illiterate persons, such as were most of the early interpreters. The raven was a dignified bird which disappeared with the buffalo, but its name is generally mistranslated as crow. The Sioux call the crow the “scolding grandmother,” and use its name only as a satirical jest. The famous chief known as “Young-man-afraid-of-his-Horses,” was really called “Man-whose-Horse-is-feared” (by the enemy).

It is usually possible to distinguish feminine from masculine personal names by the meaning. The names of the fiercer wild animals, such as bear, wolf, and eagle, are given to boys; girls are called after the fawn, mink, beaver, etc. Either may be called after sky, wind, or water, but the name of Fire is masculine.

An instance of the highly poetic and figurative name is that of “Wee-yó-tank-ah-loó-tah.” Literally translated, it means “He who in his usual home-going pauses upon an eminence glowing with scarlet light.” The reference is to the Sun, who, at the close of his day’s journey across the prairies of the sky, apparently rests for a moment upon his gorgeous seat at the verge of the horizon.

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  1. Pingback: Three Lakota Heroes by Charles Eastman | The Voice before the Void: Arcana, Story, Poetry

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