Anyone who saw the movie “Dances With Wolves” has some understanding about how Native Americans named their people. In the movie, a small band of Indians comes upon Kevin Costner’s character who has befriended a young wolf by feeding it. Costner and the wolf appear to be moving around together in an open field. Thus the name.

In Names and Identity: The Native American Naming Tradition, an online article of Psychology Today, April 8th, 2011, Elisabeth Wauganam, Ph.D. indicates that it is common for a Native American to receive one name as a child, another in adolescence and yet another in adulthood, depending on how and if they change. Changing a name over time may be an indication of how the person is developing as an individual. It is also possible that some people will get a name in childhood and keep it throughout their lives. It was not something that had to change.

Their first name usually comes from nature, an animal, a characteristic of personality, or an accomplishment or deed. It could also be a nickname, connected to their birth order or even be a secret name known only by the individual and their medicine man. The secret name could come from a hunch, a dream or a vision. The advantage of having a secret name is that it can be used to help a person recover and heal after trauma or an injury. Some tribes used a second or tribal name for their members. Many times the tribal name had a simple meaning like ‘the people’, or ‘human beings.’ This helped individuals focus on their responsibilities to the tribe or group. It encouraged them to give the welfare of the tribe priority over personal considerations.

White people sometimes have difficulty understanding the Native American ‘first’ names. This is due to difficulty in translation. In God Is Red, page 196, Vine Deloria discusses this aspect, ” … consider a famous Sioux name “Man Afraid of His Horses” which properly translated means a warrior so brave and fierce that even his horses invoke fear in the enemy, a name won proudly on the field of battle and indicating a major accomplishment on behalf of the tribe.”

I find Native American names attractive, especially because they can change with the person over their lifetime. They are more imaginative, descriptive and even romantic than than those of our culture.