What’s in a Name? Etymology and Names in American Indian Culture

03 January 2014


A quick Google can tell you a lot about yourself – or more specifically, your name. In my case it reveals that my first name is a Hebrew word meaning gracious (naturally), and my surname denotes that one of my ancestors was the son of someone named Philip (thrilling). While the etymology of our own names might be a slightly narcissistic preoccupation, names and naming systems can provide a fascinating insight into cultural history.


Portrait of Geronimo by E. A. Burbank


American Indian names are particularly well-known for their expressive terms, and names such as Geronimo, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull are synonymous with Americana in the popular imagination.

Typically earned rather than given, American Indian names can evolve or completely change over the course of an individual’s life, although the how and the why differs from tribe to tribe. Some Sioux bands, for example, have a system of six names (birth order, honour, special deed, nicknames, secret and spirit names) which are used at various times and can, again, evolve. They can relate to heroic deeds, a vision experienced during a dream or reflect the natural environment. Names are also considered sacred and are deemed to have healing properties – attributing a longer or different name may be a part of a healing ceremony.

Studio portrait of Chippewa Indian Something In The Air Gradually Falling to Earth


Perhaps unsurprisingly with such a complex and responsive way of choosing names, those found within the documents in American Indian Histories and Cultures are sometimes poetic, sometimes evocative, but always intriguing. From the beautiful Something In The Air Gradually Falling To The Earth (above), Shooting Star and The Man On The Water Who Sinks And Rises Again, to the likes of Sour Spittle, Smutty Bear and Moose’s Dung, the many modes and monikers evince rich and varied traditions.

Studio portrait of Dakota Indian Iron ShooterBut these names offer an insight into more than the traditions of a particular tribe. As they reflect the environment and deeds of the individual, so they reflect historical context. The documents from American Indian Histories and Cultures date from c.1500 up to the mid-twentieth century, so as America is colonised more heavily and the United States is formed, the influence of settlers can be seen in names like Iron Shooter (right), He That Walks In Iron and Bad Gun. Taking into consideration that these anglicised versions of native names were translations that varied greatly in their accuracy, another layer of meaning can be read where the names reflect the translator as well as (and perhaps more appropriately than) the individual. Either way, these recorded names are a small piece of evidence of the huge lifestyle changes that resulted for the indigenous peoples.

These photographs (alongside a wide range of other documents sourced from the outstanding Edward E. Ayer Collection at the Newberry Library, Chicago) can be found in our resource American Indian Histories and Cultures, which is out now.

About the Author

Hannah Phillips

Hannah Phillips

I am an Editor and have been with Adam Matthew Digital since October 2012. I have worked on a range of fascinating projects including American Indian Histories and Cultures, World's Fairs and Medical Services and Warfare.