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How Did the American Indians Get their Names?

People always seem to be fascinated by any thing that comes from the American Indians or as some people call them, Native Americans. They have been integrated into the white culture from Europe that dominates the United States now, but they haven’t always been, and everyone knows it. Everyone knows they have a fascinating past that many people don’t understand or know about. As for me, part of my family is American Indian, so I have read, talked to my relatives, and asked questions of experts to try to understand as much as I can about the Native Americans. I got into a discussion today with my Korean son in law, and he is fascinated by American Indians, and he began asking me questions about their names, and I decided to share with you the kinds of things I told him that I have learned through time.

Indians come in all different colors. The man in the front of this photo has white skin. The girl’s skin next to him is a bit darker, and the man behind him looks even darker. Some are named after how light or dark their skin is.

To begin with, my grandfather grew up in Indian Territory, what Oklahoma was called once upon a time. When he grew up there, there were only American Indians and outlaws. His dad was U. S. Marshal for Indian Territory. He went to school with the Indian children. They were his playmates. Some say he married a girl who was part Indian, but since so many people are scared to say they are Indian now a days because of the political scandal, the cousins on that side of the family try to negate my grandmother being part Indian even though My grandfather and grandmother told everyone she was. The first bit of information I will tell you came from my grandfather. The information that comes from that part of the family says that if someone was a half breed, meaning that they were part Indian, and part white, they had two names. They used one name when they were around the whites and one when they were around the Indians. The Indians didn’t have last names. According to my dad, his grandfather’s name was Big Tree when he was around the Indians. Since he didn’t have a last name as an Indian, he took his wife’s last name when they got married. He was called Big Tree because his arms and lets were as big around as tree trunks and he was taller than everyone around. His Indian name came because of what he looked like. He wasn’t always that big, and that fits too.


When I talked to a historian, they told me that Indians often changed their names all through their lives to fit what they were at the time. He wasn’t born Big Tree, but when he was grown, that is what the called him because of what he looked like. Many Koreans have two names, a Korean name and an English name. They use one around the Koreans and the other around the foreigners. That is what the American Indians did too.

I also knew someone named Brownie. He got the name Brownie because he was so brown at birth, and according to what I have been told, his mother was a half breed American Indian. I know still another man whose name was Whitehead. It was his family name, and he said his family was Cherokee. A friend of mine who lives among Indians told me that where she lives, the American government insisted that the Indians get last names because none of them had last names, but they were kind of confused about it and asked how. The American government told them to choose white names they liked. Some of them did, but many of them chose to name themselves according to what they looked like. This guy’s Indian relative named himself after his hair, Whitehead. I knew still another American Indian. He was darker than everyone around and even though he wasn’t really grumpy, when he talked, his voice gave you the feeling that he was grumpy. His name was Black Bear. He didn’t go by any other name. He was from Oklahoma, but not living in Oklahoma. When I met him, like many who are Indian or part Indian, he spotted me and wanted to talk to me because outside of Oklahoma, Indians seem to recognize one another. Even though I am only part Indian, they always recognize me as Indian even if they have never met me.

Some Indians are named after places.//Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Another way American Indians got their names is their parents gave them the name of a place. I learned this from a historian I talked to who specialized in Indian history. I knew a lady in Oklahoma named Tennessee Indiana. Her family was Cherokee. Before she was born, their house was burned down over on the east coast, and the family went running for their lives. They ran into Tennessee, then into Indiana. While her family was on the run, the Trail of Tears, the time when all the Cherokees were taken forcibly to Indian Territory, took place. This woman’s family heard that the Cherokees were in Indian Territory and joined them. The wife was pregnant, and when the baby was born, they named the baby Tennessee Indiana so they could remember where they had been.

I know another lady named Cleta. I thought it was a very unusual name and had never heard anyone else named Cleta. I couldn’t imagine where her mother had gotten the name until I learned more about her mother. Her mother was half Cherokee. I learned when I was in Texas that many Cherokees came down from Oklahoma for a while into Texas and stayed in north eastern Texas. This woman’s mother was in the group, and then she went back to Oklahoma. There is a town in north eastern Texas named Cleta. The pieces fit. Her mother named her after where she had lived in Texas. This woman’s sister was named “Glo,” and if you got to know her, you would know why her mother called her “Glo.” Her personality glows. Their half breed mother was doling out Indian names. People laughed about the names this lady gave because they didn’t understand them, but she was living in a white culture, but following Indian ways.

If this bird came when an Indian was on a vision quest, his name would be Hawk.

In my reading, I also learned some interesting things about how Indians got their names before the white men came. When they got to be a certain age, they were supposed to go on a vision quest. They went out into the woods alone. They weren’t supposed to eat anything. They had to stay there until an animal came to them to help them. They fasted for days on end until an animal came and was friendly toward them. The animal became their spirit guide, and they were also named after the animal. I got this information from a set of historical novels called “The Spanish Trail Saga.” They were supposed to be factual, but still not actually about any particular people. The author gave the Indian tribes different names other than they actually had, so there is no way to know which tribe actually did this, but at least one of them did and maybe more.

The Indians are integrated into the European society than has come to America, and today many Indians dress like cowboys, but if you look close within the family customs, they will be doing things like Indians, not like Europeans…

These are the things I have learned about how Indians get their names. Some come from information my family has given me. Some of the information comes from historians. Some comes from people who live among particular tribes. Some of the information comes from Indians themselves. Some are named after places, and some after physical or spiritual characteristics. They don’t look in a book full of baby names like many Americans. They don’t follow the German tradition and name all the boys after their fathers unless the are part German. They have in recent times had to find family names because they didn’t have any and were forced into the white society and ways. They became surrounded in their own land and had to be integrated because they became a minority. I have a white name even though I am part Indian. However, my mother was watching a movie star on TV she liked when she was pregnant with me, and so named me after the movie star. The experts say that even though my name is white, they consider me named in the Indian way because Indians often looked at things around them they liked and named their kids after the things around them. The culture gets passed down even though the Indians are integrated, they do certain things the way they have always done them.

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