Native Americans: Names


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.


Native Americans: The Afterlife

Leave a comment

Rather than focusing on life after death, Native Americans focus on their connection with and participation in the cycles of the natural world. When they cease to live in this world, they believe they will simply move into the world of spirit. Everyone goes to the world of spirit; death is a simple change of worlds.

Of course they grieve when they lose loved ones, as everyone grieves. Some tribes placed personal possessions in with the body of the loved one in the hope that it would help sustain their spirit in the next world. In their grieving process, they view all human beings as an integral part of nature. When the body dies it is buried and becomes the dust that nourishes the plants and animals; just as the plants and animals nourished the humans.

In order to remember loved ones, some tribes would make up medicine bundles containing a bit of hair of the deceased, intimate articles they used, and possibly parts of animals that were related to the family’s spiritual traditions. These bundles were kept in the family dwelling for up to a year after the loved one departed. In this way, the family felt the loved one was still with them. This extended the grieving period and allowed family members to feel that their member was emotionally or spiritually present.

While white people want to see the death of a loved one as part of God’s plan, Native Americans saw every death as fulfilling their destiny. Their bodies contributed to the ongoing life cycle of creation. Their fondest hope was that they would be reborn into future generations so they could continue to live productive lives as members of their tribe.

These thoughts were all taken from chapter ten of God Is Red, by Vine Deloria Jr.

Native Americans: Creation


In my blog on February 24th this year I wrote how Christian beliefs are time-based and Native American beliefs are based on space, specifically location or place. This accounts for differences between the two groups on the issue of creation. Note: I’m focusing on these differences in order to provide information about Native Americans, not to generate controversy.

While both groups believe in a Creator, they differ on creation. Christianity believes creation happened at a specific point and moves through time until the end of the world and a final judgement. Most tribal religions focus instead on the interrelationship of all things and see our Creator as a kind of tribal grandparent. They do not see a need to establish a personal relationship with the Great Spirit.

In the New Testament, Genesis states that man is given dominion over the rest of creation. We know that this command included the responsibility for the proper care of nature. However it has been misinterpreted all too often as being given free reign over the earth and everything on it and as an excuse to ‘subdue’ it to our human will. This is not what was intended, but is the result of egotistical calculations to gain power and money.

For Native Americans, their relationship with each other and the various manifestations of Nature is like an extended family. It is a recognition of their dependence  on these relationships for their very existence. In his book (page 87) God Is Red, Vine Deloria Jr. writes, “The task of the tribal religion, if such a religion can be said to have a task, is to determine the proper relationship that the people of the tribe must have with other living things and to develop the self-discipline within the tribal community so that man acts harmoniously with other creatures.” He continues on page 88, “Other living things are not regarded as insensitive species. Rather they are “people” in the same manner as the various human beings are people.”

To elaborate on this theme, Deloria later quotes James Jeans in his book Physics and Philosophy, “Space and time are inhabited by distinct individuals, but when we pass beyond space and time, from the world of phenomena towards reality, individuality is replaced by community. When we pass beyond space and time, they [separate individuals] may perhaps form ingredients of a single continuous stream of life.”

Native American Concept of Religion

1 Comment

I’m reading God Is Red, by Vine Deloria, Jr., a well-known Native American scholar and author of several books about Native Americans and their beliefs.

Something I have just realized, from reading the above book, is one of the most significant differences between Western religious belief and Native American religious belief: Time and Space. In fact that is the title of chapter 4 of his book. The easiest way to understand the difference is to look at each group separately.

Since the first explorers came from Europe, our Western European ancestors were mostly Christians, with some other groups mixed in. Christianity started two thousand years ago and spread from the Middle East into Europe where it became the prominent religion. It didn’t matter what European country you were from, you could be Christian. And when the Europeans migrated to the New World, Christianity came with them. For those of us who grew up Christian, this seems as a natural course of events. This, according to Mr. Deloria, is the Time view of religion. No matter where you are or where you go, your religion is with you.

For American Indians, however, their land had the greatest meaning in their spiritual beliefs. All of their beliefs included the land as the place where they experienced their relationships with other life forms. Their spiritual experiences, through rituals and ceremonies, were associated with place. In some cases a place was set aside as sacred ground. This has never changed. American Indians still hold some locations as sacred, even though they may be forbidden to live there. Sacred places were where they could go to communicate with spirits; places their tribes had occupied for thousands of years. This is why they refused to move from their lands when settlers arrived. It was not just the issue of ownership. It was the also the importance of their spiritual beliefs.

This was the cause of much misunderstanding and conflict when Western Europeans arrived. As Mr. Deloria writes (pages 61 and 62), “When one group is concerned with the philosophical problem of space and the other with the philosophical problem of time, then the statements of either group do not make sense when transferred from one context to the other without the proper consideration of what is taking place.”