The Old North Trail, by Walter McClintock, , at sacred-texts.com
Various methods used in obtaining proper names.—Interesting illustrations of naming children.—Manner of changing men's names.—Women's names.—Names for strangers.—Names for animals.—Extended use of sign language among plains-tribes.
IT is a wonderful provision of nature, which preserves the identity of the individual by infinite variations and combinations of facial features and other characteristics. All races of men emphasise this individuality still further by giving to such human entity a proper name. The various methods, by which this is done, furnish an interesting field of investigation. I found it so with the Blackfeet, but was not able to make an exhaustive study of the subject. I, however, discovered that the queer and fantastic proper names of the Blackfeet, which seem to most people either curious, or amusing, have often been improperly rendered into English equivalents which fail to express the Indian ideas.
I met with a reluctance among the Blackfeet to tell their names, which was prompted by a superstitious fear of the bad luck, or misfortune that might follow.
In common with other Indian tribes, the Blackfeet have no patronymics to denote ancestry, or surnames to designate family. It was, however, sometimes the case, that a distinguished name would be handed down from father to son. Thus Brings-down-the-Sun, having
received in infancy the name of his distinguished father, Running Wolf, and being proud of the name, and the brave deeds it stood for, gave the same name to his son.
The Blackfeet used great care in the selection of appropriate proper names, being guided by certain customs and employing a variety of methods in obtaining them. Parents ordinarily entrusted the task of naming their children to
Click to enlarge
Names were often given because of some physical mark, or characteristic. The use of horses and the capture of horses from other tribes having been a prominent feature of their life, it was but natural that the word horse was used in a great variety of name combinations.
Dreams were depended upon for suggestions; which were said to come from the "Dream People," and they were also received from the animals. When Onesta's wife, Nitana, was once sleeping on the bank of the Missouri River, she heard, in a dream, a strange voice calling "Go away from there, Green Snake Woman, do not disturb that sleeping person!" and then again, "Go
away from there, Green Snake Woman, do not waken that person!" When she awoke, she saw, by a strange coincidence, a rattlesnake near by with head erect, as if calling to her children. The young snakes were crawling beside their mother, and all went off together. When Nitana was afterwards asked to name her sister's
Click to enlarge
TWO SISTERS—GREEN SNARE WOMAN AND BLUE SNAKE WOMAN.
little girls, she gave them the names of the rattlesnake's children.
Spotted Eagle, the medicine man, once dreamed that he was walking under the ground, following a man, whose comrade called him "Walking Underneath." The first male child Spotted Eagle was asked to name he called "Walking Underneath."
When Brings-down-the-Sun lay watching a family of beavers at their work, he heard the mother beaver calling her children by the names, Sa-ko-wai-stai (Last
[paragraph continues] Diver) and Sa-kowa-et-sosin (Last-one-to-swim-in-with-the-willows, referring to the beavers’ food). When the chief was asked by a relative to name two of his boys, he gave them the names of the beaver children.
Another custom was to name a child in honour of a
Click to enlarge
LAST-ONE-TO-SWIM-IN-WITH-THE-WILLOWS AND HIS SISTERS.
medicine animal, or bird, thereby invoking their protection, or the gift of their supernatural qualities for the child. This had its counterpart in the custom of the Pilgrim Fathers of New England of choosing Christian names from Biblical characters and qualities and even sacred phrases. It resembles, too, the more modern custom, which many observe, of giving the names of the saints to their children.
The name of the wife of Curly Bear, who is still alive, although now an old woman, had a singular origin in a religious act of her father. Many years ago, during a scourge of smallpox, her father prayed to the Sun, offering his girl baby as a propitiatory sacrifice to ward off the "great sickness" with the prayer, "Take her, O Sun! and leave the rest of my family!" But they all died save this baby. She alone was spared. From that day her name has been "Given Away."
Running Fisher and his wife (Lone-Charge-Woman) became discouraged because of the death of all their children, although they had carefully complied with the customary precautions and observances, to insure their living to old age. When another child, a girl, was born, they decided upon a different method. They named her Sis-toi-tsi-ma (Something-that-is-given-away). They allowed her to run wild, hoping by that method to escape the bad luck that had befallen their other children. She is alive to-day and the mother of a family.
Other names of girl babies that I met with were:—
Ska-na-sa-ne = Cries-early-in-the-morning.
A-na-to-ki = Pretty Head.
So-ya-ksi-wa-wa-kas = Water-spider-woman.
Sit-so-a-ki = Good-looking-water-bird.
Sit-a-ka-poki = Stays-in-different-lodges.
A-ka-no-kim = Everybody-down-on.
also Blue Wings and Born-with-teeth.
[paragraph continues] The names of females were not changed after childhood as was the case with males. A boy's name was frequently changed when he became 16 or 18 years old and his character was sufficiently developed to make
some trait prominent, or give promise of his after life. But, when he reached manhood, his name might be changed again to commemorate some deed of valour, or notable event.
"Behind-the-ear" was so named, because he shot an enemy behind the ear, and Many-white-horses, because his herd was composed entirely of white horses. Brings-down-the-Sun told me that his present name originated in a dream, in which the Sun God came down and stood beside him and said, "I take you for my friend, and I bestow upon you my supernatural power." When he related his dream to his people, they changed his name from Running Wolf to Natosin Nepe-e or Brings-down-the-Sun.
When a man distinguished himself as a warrior, in the face of the enemy, it was customary for him to name his girls in honour of his exploits. But they had a superstitious belief that if his claims were false, the child would die.
The following names of women will illustrate:
A-kops-iso = Took-many-things-with-a-scalp; Kills-many; Strikes-on-a-horse; Catches-the-enemy; and Catches-two-horses.
Mad Wolf named his daughter Strikes-on-both-sides, because as he said, "when captured by the enemy, I saved her life by striking them down on both sides of her."
The wife of Big Eyes was named by her father, Its-ue-nikki = Kills-close-to-the-lake, because he killed an enemy in a fight close to a lake. I found many names of women, the first syllable of which was either "Strikes" or "Kills."
Strangers were given names from some peculiarity of their personal appearance. When Arthur Nevin, the musical composer, went with me among the Blackfeet,
they called him "Don't-lace-his-moccasins," not because of any carelessness in tying his shoes, but because he was said to resemble a Blood Indian of that name. They called the author, A-pe-ech-eken = White Weasel, because I was a blonde. They called Father De Smet "Long Teeth" because of a peculiarity of his mouth. "Long Knives" is their name for United States cavalrymen equipped with sabres; "Red Coats" for the Canadian mounted police; "Black Robes" for Catholic priests, and "White Ties" for Protestant missionaries.
Names for animals are in like manner similarly expressive, although sometimes difficult of rendering into equivalent English words.
Buffalo; Ee-neu-ah = Black Horns.
Badger; Me-sin-ski = Striped Face.
Deer (White-tail); Au-a-tu-yi = Wags-his-tail.
Coyote; Kis-see-noh-o = Bastard; or E-muck-o-tis-ah-pi-ce-yi = Small Wolf.
Mule; O-muck-stow-ki = Big-Ears.
Horse; Pono-kom-i-ta = Elk Dog.
Pono-kom-i-ta (horse) is a compound word composed of Ponoka = Elk, and Emita = dog. Its etymology seems to have been as follows. The elk was known and named by the Blackfeet long before the appearance of horses. When horses were introduced, and because they resembled the elk in form, they applied to the new animal their name for elk, but differentiated it, by affixing their name for dog, expressing its use, the dog having been their beast of burden before horses were known.
Further illustrations of the appropriateness of Blackfeet names for things will be found in Brings-down-the-Sun's
topography of the Old North Trail (pp.434-440); in his discourses on the names and habits of birds (pp. 481-484); and on the names of the different moons, the constellations and signs in the heavens (pp. 486-488).
They also had phrases and proverbs tersely expressing both wisdom and humour.
The phrase, "Ik-is-kaks-ksisi," = "His nose is short for good nature," describes a man who loses his temper quickly.
The phrase, "Ah-kit-kats-a-pin-soye," = His eyes are dry from looking around so much," or, more literally, "He has been looking around so much, that he winks his eyes as if they were dry," describes a sight-seer, or one absorbed and staring at the sights around him.
The art of talking by sign language, i.e. by a combination of facial expressions and bodily movements, which is natural to man, attained a high degree of perfection among the plains-tribes. Having different vocal languages, their contact, when coming together in war or in hunting buffalo, of necessity developed the use of gesture-speech in the remote past. A tradition of the Arapahoe tells us that the original Arapahoe, the creator of all things, "taught them to talk with their hands." Iron Hawk, a Sioux chief, said to Captain W. P. Clark, "the sign language was the gift of the Great Spirit. He gave the whites the power to read and write and convey information in this way. He gave us the power to talk with our hands and arms and to send information to a distance with the mirror, blanket and pony, and when we meet with Indians who have a different spoken language from ours, we can talk to them with signs." Alex. Henry, a partner of the North Western Company (Montreal),
records in his journal (1806), "It is surprising how dexterous these natives of the plains are, in the art of communicating their ideas by signs. They will hold conference for several hours together upon different subjects and, during the whole time, not a single word will be pronounced on either side, and still they appear to understand each other perfectly."
The Blackfeet, because of their central location on the
Click to enlarge
VISITING INDIANS CONVERSING IN SIGN LANGUAGE.
(Second from left end is making sign for buffalo by crooking forefingers.)
[paragraph continues] Buffalo range, and frequent contact with other tribes, had constant use for sign language and were very proficient. I attended one of their large camps where representatives from 16 different tribes were present. Although unable to understand each other's spoken language, they talked freely and rapidly together in gesture speech. Each evening the visiting Indians withdrew to a ridge, overlooking the big camp, where I
watched, with great interest, their graceful and expressive gestures, while conversing with the Blackfeet chiefs in the sign language. I learned the equivalent ideas representing the names of the following tribes present and saw them expressed by signs readily understood by all.
Arapahoe = Spotted People, because they had many spotted, or pinto horses.
Blackfeet = Black moccasins, because the bottoms of their moccasins were black.
Blood = Streak-across-the-mouth, a peculiar way the Bloods had of painting.
Cheyenne = People-who-part-their-hair-in-the-middle.
Crow = Bird flying.
Flathead = Peculiar shape of the head.
Gros Ventres (of the prairies), = Big Bellies, because they eat so much.
Kutenai = Mountain People, People-who-live-in-the-mountains.
Mandans = People-who-live-in-dirt-lodges.
Nez Perce = Users-of-black-paint.
Pend d’Oreille = Paddling People, or River-people-using-canoes.
Piegan = Users-of-paint-on-the-cheeks.
Sioux = Cut Throats, from the olden-time tradition that they cut off the heads of their victims in battle.
Snake = A crawling serpent.
As an illustration of the Indian's method of conveying ideas by signs, I quote the manual equivalents for some of the above mentioned tribal names, for which I am indebted to "Indian Sign Language," by Captain W. P. Clark, Second Cavalry, United States Army.
Sioux = Concept.—Cutting off heads.
Sign: Hold right hand, back up, in front of left shoulder, height of throat, index finger extended and pointing to left, other fingers and thumb closed, move the hand horizontally to the right, index passing near throat.
Blackfeet. Concept = Black Moccasins.
Sign: For moccasins, pass spread thumbs and index fingers over feet and toes to ankles, right hand over right foot, left hand over left foot, palms of hands towards and close to feet. For black, point to something black in colour.
Crow. Concept = Bird flying.
Sign: Bring extended hands, backs nearly up, in front, a little higher than and slightly to right and left of shoulders; move the hands simultaneously a little downwards, slightly outwards, and a trifle to right and left, indicating motion of wings.
Flathead. Concept = Peculiar shape of head.
Sign: Press the upper part of forehead and head with palms of hands, fingers extended and touching, tips of fingers touching above head.
Nez Perce. Concept = Powder, because of their excessive use of a bluish black paint.
Sign: Hold extended left hand in front of body, back down, and rub tips of fingers and thumb of right hand just over left palm.
Snake. Concept = Motion of a snake.
Sign: Hold right hand, back to right, in front of right shoulder about height of waist, first and second fingers extended, touching and pointing to front, and, by wrist action, give a wavy sinuous motion to extended fingers.