Nicknaming has always been something special at the Indian mission school I attended in the 40s and 50s. A boy with the last name Livermont quickly became "Gizzard" Livermont. Charles Swallow became "Spit" Swallow. Then there was Squash Head, Spud Head, and Bull Moose. One boy was given the name "21." He was a very quiet sort, and one of the students followed him around for a full day counting the words he uttered. That's how he got his nickname.
My nickname was Wobby, which I adopted early on. Being the youngest of 11 siblings who survived infancy in our family, I was called Baby until around age four when I got tired of it.
So, I named myself Wobby - how I thought up the name, I have no recollection. I kept the nickname through high school, and on into two years of junior college in Oklahoma. Me being of Sioux blood, students at the college assumed it was an Indian name and were always asking what it meant in "the Indian language." They wouldn't accept my explanation that the word had no meaning beyond the fancy of a young boy, so I decided to have some fun, and would tell that it was a Lakota word meaning "Brave Eagle" or "Great Warrior," or some great masculine physical attribute.
But after awhile I got tired of the game. So, when I transferred to the University of South Dakota I vowed to not ever mention my nickname and to introduce myself only by my Christian name. But then I got to thinking that with the name Charles I would immediately be called "Charlie," and I hated that prospect. The name Charlie doesn't sound complete without "good old" in front of it; and I didn't want to go through life as "good old Charlie" so I decided on Chuck, which is how I'm known to this day ... except to the people back home on the Pine Ridge Reservation. To them, I will always be Wobby. In fact, when my wife and I recently visited my hometown of Wanblee, one of my relatives came up to her and said, "You must be Mrs. Wobby."
But people outgrow nicknames. At reunions or pow wows on the reservation, people - guys, especially - will pull one another aside, "Listen, Herb, I won't call you Squash Head if you don't call me Duck Butt, OK."
On a visit back home several years ago I was riding around with some friends when a huge Lakota wearing a big black cowboy hat lumbered over to where we were parked. "Hey, that's Dopey," I said as he approached. My friend next to me nudged me hard and reminded me that the guy's name is Richard, and he hates anybody calling him by his old nickname.
As we drove away after a bit of chitchat with Richard, I mentioned how massive he was compared to the cute little tyke we used to call Dopey (which was no reflection on his IQ; he was a bright kid, but had a squidgy nose like the Disney dwarf). "Yes," my friend says, "and you're lucky you kept your mouth shut, because he's also meaner'n any dog on the rez." The huge silver belt buckle he was wearing, I was told, wasn't a prize he won in a rodeo - but a trophy nonetheless because he took it off the near corpse of a champion bronc rider he left on the floor of a border town saloon. And he's amassed a whole collection of buckles that way.
So, savor those wonderful memories of youth. But about those old nicknames, be awful careful how you use them when you go home to the rez. The cute little chick you used to call Snake Hips now weighs in the neighborhood of 250 lbs. and has laid up two of her last three husbands; and little Dopey collects belt buckles.
Charles E. Trimble is an Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was a principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-78. He is President of Red Willow Institute in Omaha, Nebraska and a columnist for Indian Country Today.