Trimble: More Indian names

Charles E. Trimble, Columnist
5/23/09

There is not a greater oxymoron – a contradiction in terms – in Indian country than that of the name Rosebud Sioux. The name of a delicate flower doesn’t fit one of the fiercest warrior societies on the Northern Plains. It is a contradiction akin to, let’s say, Petunia Apache, or Chrysanthemum Comanche.

In recent times, the custom of conferring Indian names has been strained by Indians of marginal blood quantum.

The real name of that noble tribe is Sicangu, which translates “Burnt Thighs.” And that’s a name that has been worn with great pride for many generations.

Then how did they end up with the name Rosebud?

Most of the reservation homelands were named to facilitate geography and administration on the part of colonial overseers – the so-called Indian agents of the late 19th century. The names were often based on the name of a creek, or the topography, like Pine Ridge. The tribe or group of tribes had to accept the name in order to receive rations and annuities guaranteed under treaty. It’s likely the main reason was to humiliate the tribes by changing their age-old names, to destroy tribal identity and cultures, and make them disappear into the mythical melting pot, as Manifest Destiny demanded.

To force Indian nations to take on an alien tribal name in English or Spanish was cruel enough, but often the tribe was forced to take the name of the military outpost that was established to wage war on them and to keep them in virtual bondage: Fort Sill Apache, Fort Peck Assiniboine-Sioux, and Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold are some examples. In one instance – the homeland of the Shoshone and Arapaho in Wyoming – the reservation carries the ironic name of a fort named after a chief: Fort Washakie.

Like the Sicangu at Rosebud, however, more and more tribal nations are reclaiming their true names – a reflection of growing confidence in their sovereignty.

Arbitrarily anglicizing or Latinizing Indian names was done to individuals as well, especially in the Southwest with Spanish invaders. Often, names were imposed on men as a convenience when census takers could not spell the true names in the tribal language. I am told that the first man to carry the respected name Cornelius among the Oneida had to accept the name to be listed by the whites on the rolls of the tribe. There were no tribal forebears that carried the name.

Among the Lakotas, children are often given an “Indian name” as well as their Christian name. This is especially important to mixed bloods like myself whose surnames are not typically Indian. Mine, for example, is Cansasa (pronounced cha-SHA-sha), which is Lakota for Red Willow. The name was given to me in 1939, when I was 4 years old, by a much-respected elder in our home village of Wanblee. And it is a matter of great pride to me.

Translations were made through interpreters who did not necessarily know the language or the context of names.


In recent times, the custom of conferring Indian names has been strained by Indians of marginal blood quantum, as well as wannabes. This is especially true with some self-styled leaders who want their audiences, especially the whites, to know they are reading an Indian author or reading about a genuine Indian leader. These are called subtitled Indians; those who always include their Indian name, often in Italics, under their European surnames.

Some of these people will seek out a tribal elder or holy man to give them a name, and will often ask for or suggest a name they would like to have, most of the time one with romantic or heroic connotation – like Brave Warrior or Flying Eagle. Others might ask for a name that has significance to the person’s profession, or to the position of leadership in which he sees himself. Seldom are the selected names those of the much respected, but not especially romantic, surnames of great leaders like Rain in the Face or Young Man Afraid of his Horses.

Women are seldom guilty of this practice. Some, like Cherokee Princess Pale Moon in Washington, D.C., take on the name perhaps for professional purposes. Otherwise, the growing number of outstanding women authors, journalists, political leaders, social activists and artists are seldom listed with an Indian subtitle.

In the book, “The Crazy Horse Ledgers,” issued by Nebraska University Press, are the names that appear on the census taken of Crazy Horse’s band when he surrendered at Fort Robinson, Neb., in 1878. The original ledger is shown in detail, written in the elegant script that was customary in those times. There are also typed copies of those ledgers in the book. In the photocopies of the old ledger are check marks noting some of the names that were seen as comical by the census takers, and some that were considered pornographic.

The name of a delicate flower doesn’t fit one of the fiercest warrior societies on the Northern Plains.

A Lakota elder explained to me that some of the interpreters assisting in the taking of that census would mistranslate the names of persons they didn’t like or otherwise wanted to play a joke on. This accounts for some of those names with comical or pornographic meanings. Few, if any, of those names have survived to modern times.

The name Red Cloud is said to have come from the legion of warriors he led in his historic war that defeated the U.S. Army on the Bozeman Trail. His warriors, it was said, were uniformly clad in red blankets and swarmed over the enemy like a cloud. However, his name was Red Cloud before he led those warriors. And the Lakota fighting man was individualistic in what he wore, and in his exploits. The individual dress, war paint and amulets they wore into battle were sacred to them. Until much later with the creation of the Indian police, the garb of any warrior could not be dictated to him.

It would be interesting for Native scholars to study the names of such people as Rain in the Face, Crazy Horse, and Young Man Afraid of his Horses, and interview elders. Although these names are held in the greatest esteem universally, especially among Lakota people, it would be interesting to know what was actually being described in the context of the Lakota language. Translations were made through interpreters who did not necessarily know the language or the context of names, and some that were prone to lies and mischief in their translations.

Perhaps it’s time to correct them.

Charles E. Trimble is an Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge 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 retired and lives in Omaha, Neb. He can be reached at cchuktrim@aol.com or at iktomisweb.com.

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