Is It Okay To Give Your Kids Native Names Even If They Aren’t Native?

White People Asking Questions is a series where White people submit questions and they are posed anonymously to the public for a 24-hour period and are answered anonymously.

Oftentimes White people have questions about themselves, People Of Color (POCs), or awkward situations, but are afraid to ask them due to public backlash. On the other hand, POCs get asked these questions every day and are burdened with the emotional labor of constantly explaining the same concept to people that will never relate because it is not their experience.

But just because you can’t relate doesn’t mean you don’t want to learn and do something about it. Amirite? As Angela Davis said, “You have to be intentionally and actively anti-racist.” 

Therefore, this series is having the conversation on how White People can be ACTIVE in dismantling racist systems and not passively watching. What is unique, though, is this series is set up to be answered primarily BY White People FOR White People teach each other about their privileges. 

POCs are always welcome to participate in dialogue, but this also creates a space for POCs to watch White People do the work in educating each other. Many times our communities are so disconnected that we don’t know the conversations happening amongst other communities. This is also meant as a resource for POCs to direct White People to for difficult concepts.

How Not To Travel Like A Basic Bitch wants to acknowledge and thank everyone who took on the emotional labor of sending in these responses. We include all responses that are directly relevant to answering the question. We don’t filter or edit, but we do correct spelling and grammatical errors. Highlighted in red at the bottom is the takeaway of the discussion.

Question:

I keep on thinking…what about all those non native people who have the name Dakota, Cheyenne, Native inspired names etc…

What do you do if ur a parent and you JUST named one of ur kids that? And understand why it’s wrong? Is it ok among natives to name your kids that, even if they are non native?

Hope this makes sense.

Native Responses:

Who gonna tell them Cheyenne ain’t even the Cheyenne’s name. Honestly they might be impressed if you named your kid Só’taétaneo’o instead

I personally would never inflict lifelong guild onto a person about their name or their child’s name

I always wondered if the parent who named these kids are actually naming them after native nations or if it’s just a name they’ve heard. I would never shame someone’s name…however I think it would be cool to let the child know their named after a nation as I’m sure it would make them interested in learning more about that tribe

Indigenous White-passing response: I personally think it’s a little weird to have the name of a tribe that you don’t belong to, but that being said there’s no specific protocol (at least for my people and for tribes that I know of) about naming your children after a tribe. (HOWEVER, there is a protocol around names given to you in your indigenous language by elders/spiritual leaders.) But I would say that if you choose to name your child after a tribe, you should take your time to educate yourself, and your child, about that tribe’s history and current issues facing them. And you have also known that most tribes original/preferred names translate to a variation of “The people/the first people” so that’s what your child’s name would actually mean.

Lol my name is Cheyenne. I am a White passing native of Muskogee heritage. My family named me to commemorate a lot of different things. One being heritage, yet to a tribe I don’t belong to but a tribe of the First Nations, the first peoples, another being the Earth, being in reference to Cheyenne, Wyoming also. I have visited the Cheyenne reservation along with the ones surrounding in Montana and I feel honored to have done so, even though I am not a Cheyenne or Crow or a part of the Blackfeet Nation. I’m not sure how I would feel about a non-Native given these names, besides they didn’t choose the name. You *hopefully don’t find people naming kids after other cultures, identities, or places. (Ex. Shanghai, Kyoto, Manali, Tulum) so it should be the same. But at the same time, Cheyenne and Dakota are not exactly Native names. So? It doesn’t mean much anyway?

If you use a word from our actual language then it’s wrong. For instance our word for Bear is “Makwa”. Don’t use the word “Makwa” as it has long historical cultural and spiritual meanings behind the animal and its life. I wouldn’t care if you called yourself Bear but if you used the word “Makwa” is a no no. I wouldn’t shame someone for it though just may make a few Dances with Wolves comments lol

That hits close to home and it meant a lot to see it as a conversation on your platform. I’m White passing Indigenous btw. My mom and dad fought over my and my sister’s names. My dad wanted Native names and my mom wanted white names. It hurts a lot because I feel like being denied that piece of myself and my culture has added a wedge and disconnection to my people. If this ever comes up in conversation again? I’d like to add the other side of the coin. Don’t name your child something non-native to your culture out of fear and hopes of assimilation and “peace”. That takes a toll in its own way. I hope that made sense. I usually just stay quiet through your stories to learn. This particular topic spoke to me and I guess I just wanted to share a little bit of my story. Thank you again for the conversation on here.

My name is Cheyenne and I’m Native but NOT named for the Cheyenne people. I’m named after Cheyenne Brando because my mom heard her name on the new when she was in the hospital and liked it and my last name is Marlin and Marlon Brando…idk. But I have been asked this on multiple occasions. Anyway…interesting topic.

White Responses:

Oh goodness, White person here with a youngest child named Maya and would love to explain how this name was chosen. She is 9 and I will admit I was not as educated about cultural appropriation then as I am now but can explain how this came to be her name. When I was pregnant I had two older children, one who was a toddler and one who was almost 5 and I had chosen the name Cordelia (I just liked the sound of it and we had a Linnéa—nope no one is Swedish—and an Oriana) the kids had been interested in the Mayan people and the ruins and history so we were learning all about them and researching tons. When Maya was born in late August the first week or so the midwives had her down as Cordelia but we told them we weren’t sure bc my partner and other kiddos didn’t love that name for her. Everyone had been calling her Maya and Maya Cordelia and she was already responsive to that and the older children were so thrilled and Linnéa especially kept insisting that Maya was meant to be her name so I gave in. She does have a fondness for the Mayan People and as she has gotten older we’ve been teaching her more, my children have also been learning a lot the last 3-4 years about racism, true history, cultural appropriation as well as many other social justice and issues related to our white ancestry and thus our present. I know the day will come when she may say is my name cultural appropriation and I’ve wondered what I should say? It certainly never was in any intentional sense but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel that way to someone or some people. I will allow her the freedom to change it if she so chooses. The same way I’ve not held my intersex trans kiddo to the name we chose. [Kiona: I’ve thought about this too. How names can imply gender.] I shudder to think that my child’s name could cause pain to someone but I hope that if they knew how it came to be and how much we educate ourselves and advocate that maybe they would be ok with it, but the only true way to know would be to contact a Mayan and ask for their blessing. So many thoughts and feelings here and I hope nothing I’ve said has hurt you.

White person here—is this an “us” question? I guess maybe a nickname? And use it as a teachable moment later. I’m named after a former Sikh leader. No idea what to do with that.

Hi! I just recently started following you and have already learned a ton, so thank you for that! But wow this question hits close to home, as I am named for a Native group (Shawnee) but very white. I grew up being told by family on both sides that we were native, and that fascinated me so I learned and read as much as I could. I recently did a DNA test and found out that we have zero native and after educating myself in college it made me feel very weird, like my own name was appropriated, so this thread has been just good to read from other perspectives.

I’m White and my parents gave me the middle name Shanti which means peace in Hindi mostly because my Dad was a massive hippy who spent a lot of time in India before I was born. I’ve always felt weird about it as I have such a disconnection to the name growing up in rural England. I’ve never met anyone of Indian heritage who has been offended it, remember missing a train once because the guy working out the counter had seen my name on my ID and thought it was amazing.

Ashkenazi Jew here—Maya is also a Hebrew name meaning water. So many names have different meanings and connotations in different languages and cultures. Thank you for this discussion.

POC Responses:

Hi! Non-Native woman of colour here. I can’t speak to Native words specifically, but I do find it kind of odd when white people name their kids after non-white places, like “China” or “Asia”. I don’t necessarily find it offensive – just weird. Like, I’m Chinese-Canadian and I’d probably never name my kid “Milan” or “Paris.” If you’re going to use a word/name outside of your own culture, I think you should make a point to educate your child about where that word comes from so that they are taught the importance of recognizing and honouring their name’s roots!

Not related specifically to the name Cheyenne but my name is Italia and my sister’s name is Iran and we both don’t belong to either culture. I’ve always thought it was cool when people are named after places. and we’ve learned about the cultures and why my mom named us that (because she loves traveling) – So why not.

OMG I never thought about this…I named my dog Dakota bc I grew up in South Dakota and it reminded me of home when I had moved away and got her. This is why I love your page.. it brings up things I would have never realized could offend someone…Although she’s 7 years old now, so I don’t know that I would change her name

Black woman, non-Native person here. I have an indigenous name from the Mesoamerican Toltecs. We have no cultural ties to this community and I’m not part of the LatinX diaspora, but my dad really liked the meaning of my name. In Toltec Tonal means the known, or all that is known and seen. My brother’s name is the opposite of min. I had no idea about this until I got to college and I was minoring in Chicano/Latino studies that someone of the LatinX diaspora told me what it meant and asked how I got my name. For me as I’ve gotten older I have started to relate this to how before folx were colonized their names had deep meanings and that my dad wanted to give my name some type of meaning that we weren’t afforded much after the slave trade. But that’s like meta meta haha. He prolly just thought it was a cool name with a cool meaning. However, I would have appreciated knowing the original of my name sooner so I could have learned more about the Toltec.

I know that this specific convo on names taken from Native American tribes or that associated with those groups is over…but I wanted to share that as a biracial POC who goes by two names when I’m with either side of my family – I’ve never felt comfortable with people from other cultures using names that aren’t theirs. As someone else pointed out, certain names have deeper meanings and I wouldn’t want anyone to use though unless they are actually affiliated with my tribe. Knowing me doesn’t count, learning about my culture doesn’t count—IMO. I don’t ever wanna meet a white kids with my name or those of my African cousins & family. Period. I would 100% clown with a white kid for having such a name. especially because they’d prolly bastardize the hell out of pronunciation. Whereas, ok you named your kid Bear—idgaf because Bear is easy to say and just means a literal bear lmao.

POC—some people care some people don’t care. If the kid is White usually Hawaiians tease the shit out of them. They always be trying way too hard and have no common respect for POC…Haoles come here, spend couple months and auto name their kids something Hawaiian just bc they spent some time here. Or they change their name themselves. Traditionally if a haole was given a name by a kanaka, ok. But not when haoles choose their own…Some people believe when they give them a certain name, esp one that has a strong meaning it puts a responsibility on them etc etc.

Yes! I had Moana on my list if I ever got a water dog like a Newfie because such a beautiful word for ocean and now I’m like eep! Cross that off.

Takeaway

No one cares

Also those aren’t even Native words

In general, know the meaning of the names you are giving your kids and inform your kids of their meaning.


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