Why Traditional Tribe Names Are Important

Thinking about Native representation reminds me of tribal names – both having them changed and having them used by others. Many tribes in the U.S. were randomly given new names by the U.S. government, the Spaniards, the French, and sometimes other tribes. Why? Simply because they found it more convenient to use a different frame of reference.

Look at this Indigenous map and ask: Whose land are you on? You’ll only see traditional tribal names, which are not taught in school and thus unrecognizable to most Americans today. This does little to support Native representation, especially since more tribes are returning to their traditional names. One example of a traditional name in use is Kewa Pueblo rather than Santo Domingo.

What’s more, many of the traditional tribal names simply mean “the people” or refer to where they live. But that is not the case for the names randomly assigned to tribes by others or the meaning given to such nicknames. This chart shows some examples of nicknames related to tribes in our service area.

Tribe names as military code names

It seems Native names are also a convenient source of code names for military operations. For example, the code name Geronimo may have referred to Osama bin Laden or the military operation surrounding his capture. But why link an American legend and freedom fighter to a most wanted terrorist? The Senate Indian Affairs Committee seems to agree that it’s disrespectful. They said: “These inappropriate uses of Native American icons and cultures are prevalent throughout our society, and the impacts to Native and non-Native children are devastating.”

Some Army helicopters named after tribes include the Lakota, Chinook, and Iroquois, to name a few. This practice began in 1947 when Army General Hamilton Howze wanted to name the first two Army helicopters after something fast, strong, and related to American history. So, he thought of the Native warriors of the 19th century… This is flattering in a way, yet not so much in other ways. And then there are sports team names – a whole other story.

The point is that what can only be called ‘nicknames’ reflect how other people remembered the tribes or thought of them during the colonization era. Yet traditional Native names have sacred and ancestral meanings and deserve to be known and respected. Traditional names link tribes to nature or humankind, and like the Lakota, remind us “mitakuye oyasin” (we are all related).


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