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What’s in a Name? Indian Naming Conventions

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American Indian naming traditions vary from tribe to tribe. The chosen name is often nature-based and given in the original language of the tribal affiliation, with the English version as its translation. Many Cherokee didn’t take a surname until around the Civil War, due to the service requirements of every soldier needing two names, so they were either given an anglicized name or chose one.

Many Natives were given anglicized names during the boarding-school phase in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The census or “roll” of the mid 19th century began assigning European names to individuals. The heads of the house were permitted to choose the name of their most recent European ancestor, a family benefactor, an English translation of their name, or have one picked at random by the census taker.

Missionaries also played a big part of changing traditional names. They often took Indian wives, and when an Indian was baptized, they took the name of a church sponsor. Indian children born in a part of their country that was influenced by a church often took the preacher’s first name or his family’s name.

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