August 15, 2010

Phony Indian baby names

Native American Baby Names:  The WarningOn a weekly basis, we receive mail from some teenaged girl (or occasionally boy) explaining that their parents gave them a Native American name and they now want to confirm the name's meaning or learn what tribe it comes from. The only problem is that the name in question is rarely Native American, and almost never has the meaning that they were told it did. Upon investigating this further, I found that there are dozens of "American Indian baby name list" sites on the Internet repeating the same list of 50-70 supposedly Native American girls and boys names... of which very few are genuine. No, Chenoa does not mean "white dove" in Cherokee, and Aiyana does not mean "blossom" or "eternal bloom." Kaya does not mean "little sister" in Hopi. Nadie does not mean "wise" in Algonquin. These and many other translations are flatly false and we have no idea where they came from. Other names on these lists do come from Native American words, but are inaccurately translated. For example, Kasa is widely claimed to mean "dressed in furs" or "fur-clad" in Hopi. The Hopi word kwasa means a dress or skirt, which must be where that idea came from, but it has nothing to do with fur, and there must be dozens of dogs out there inadvertently named "skirt" because of this mistranslation. Some names are mistakenly claimed to be Native American when in fact they come from Hebrew, Greek, or another non-Native American language. Others are unrecognizable and just plain untraceable, claimed to mean "power of the moon" or "angel of precious stone" in some generic "Native American" language. Think about it: if these were real Native American names, why would no one even have any idea which language they are supposed to be in? And then there are still other names that were invented by white writers of old Westerns, romance novels, fantasy adventure books or role-playing games about pseudo-Native American barbarians in alternate universes--yet somehow find their way onto these lists of American Indian baby names anyway. Believe me, you haven't seen disappointed until you've had to break the news to junior-high-school-age Katet and Svaha that their names come not from Native American tribal tradition but from books written by Stephen King and Charles de Lint.In "American Indian" Names That Don't Have The Meaning They're Supposed To, the site explains when to suspect a phony name:1) The word/name comes from a TV show, movie, or novel, and the specific Indian tribe is never mentioned there.

2) The word/name is supposed to have some sacred or culturally significant meaning, yet you can find no mention of it anywhere but baby name lists.

3) The word/name is supposed to have some long meaning, like "power of the moon" or "she dances lightly through the forest."

For what it's worth, the Lakota Sioux name of Kevin Costner's movie character "Dances With Wolves" was Sunkmanitu Tanka Ob Waci, not Steve. A one or two syllable word is unlikely to have a meaning that includes more than one concept.

4) The name was not in existence in the 1800s, and nobody knows what tribe it comes from.

Try [Googling] "1888 latoya born" and it's pretty obvious that Latoya simply was not used as a name until the 1950's. Apply this little test to the Indian name you're investigating.
This page goes through several names and explains why they're phony. Some examples:CHAKOTAY:  This is not a real Native American name. It is the name of a character on the science fiction show "Star Trek: Voyager." The actor who plays Chakotay is of Mayan descent, but the character is from a fictional tribe called the Anurabi and his name means something like "Man Who Walks the Earth But Who Only Sees the Sky" in that language. But of course, it's not a real Native American language. It's a Star Trek language, like Klingon.

DAKOTA:  Baby name books claim that this is a Sioux name meaning "friend," but it is not. It is the name of a Sioux tribe, and no one within the tribe is called "Dakota" for their first name, as this is not culturally appropriate. It also does not mean "friend." It is a plural noun meaning "the allies." Naming your child this would be like naming him or her "Frenchmen."

KAYA:  Baby name books claim this name means "little sister" or "elder sister" in Hopi. This is false. There is no word like this in Hopi, and I suspect this fraudulent name was intentionally made up because of the popularity of a Native American character named Kaya in the "American Girl" series of children's literature. In that book, the real name of the girl in the story was Kaya'aton'my', which means "one who arranges rocks" in Nez Perce. Kaya'aton'my' truly is a real Nez Perce word--the authors did their research! In real life, of course, a Nez Perce girl would never have called herself a nickname that was the first two syllables of her name, but since the target audience of young girls would never be able to remember and read a five syllable name all the time, I can sympathize with the authors' decision.
Comment:  For a discussion of a probably phony name, see Indian Maiden in PISTOLFIST. For more on the subject, see The Most Common Indian Names and Funny Indian Names.

Below:  People buy cute, romantic, whitewashed dolls for the same reason they bestow names such as Aiyana or Tala. I.e., because they're exotic but not too strange or "foreign."


Giishnasi-dood miknoot said...

I never understood these so-called "Indian names". All the nations I've lived around, our names come ceremonial rights of passage (dreams, etc) or they're given to us from a community elder for one reason or another. Rarely are our traditional names simplified like names from across the oceans. In my situation, I was named by a community elder from the Blackfeet Nation (Southern Piegan of Montana) even though I'm Anishinaabe-nini. The elder had two reasons for giving me then name, which was traditional name one of his elders in the Browning, MT area during his childhood on Blackfeet Rez. Reason #1, me and my elder's elder have/had the exact same government first name. Reason #2, me and the older elder were both known to always be dancing around. A naming ceremony was held, in which I was officially given the name... in the language of the Southern Piegan people. I kept the name as it was a huge honor, being we Anishinaabeg and the Blackfeet people have been traditional enemies since before Europeans illegally immigrated over here. For years, I couldn't find anyone who would translate the name into Anishinaabemowin for me until recently. My experience isn't the most common of naming instances,either. In my experiences from listening to elders from different nations over the years, names are incredibly special to us... highly individualized. These name lists for Westernized names are too generic...

Rob said...

As we saw in the Heidi and Spencer case, it's a way to make you or your children seem special. I.e., like a celebrity.

Altius directory said...

you can find a numerous of baby names in the below list... check it..

Unique Baby Names

Giishnasi-dood miknoot. said...

In the case of Heidi and Spencer that's an altogether different meaning of special, though.

Neil Street said...

It's about time this story was told. I am co-publisher on a baby names site (Baby Names Garden) and we have purposely held off doing a Native American names list because we don't have the expertise. I'm delighted you have brought this to light, and I have tweeted your blog post to our Twitter page and added to our Facebook page. When we do put a list together, maybe you could give it a look over and proofread it for us! Thanks.

dmarks said...

"DAKOTA: Baby name books claim that this is a Sioux name meaning "friend," but it is not. It is the name of a Sioux tribe"

In another category are authentic Native names that have crossed over to become part of the general name pool. Such as Winona.

Linde Knighton said...

Being a smart aleck, If asked for an authentic Indian name, I usually reply something like Maksheesh Patel.
If it is a fellow writer, I supply the type of name you find among Native friends, like, Al Walker, or Suzy Harjo.

Rob said...

The Altius directory contains some of the phony Indian names this posting warns about. For that reason, I suggest you avoid it.