Naming as a Source of Resiliency

By Kiišikohkwa ‘Haley Shea’ and Meemeehšhkia ‘George Ironstrack’

My (Kiišikohkwa – Haley) journey toward receiving a Myaamia name reflects the growth and change that I have experienced within my own Myaamia identity.  Before I began attending tribal educational programming, I knew my father had a “Native name” that we were told was not Myaamia but from another Algonquian language, and my brother had a Myaamia name that none of us could remember what the Myaamia word was. I remember thinking that they had done something important to get these names, but didn’t put much thought into myself not having a Myaamia name.

It is often at Myaamia youth programs that young people are given an opportunity to use their Myaamia name within the community and to teach their relatives about their name. Photo by Karen L. Baldwin

Then, as I began attending educational programming around age 10, I began to make close friendships with other children who had Myaamia names and heard educators introducing themselves in the Myaamia language.  I remember thinking that a Myaamia name was for people who were “more Myaamia” than me.  In my child brain, I processed Myaamia names as being reserved for people who lived their lives in a particular way – you needed to be fluent in Myaamiaataweenki, embody Myaamia cultural practices daily, and have a lot of knowledge about the tribe.  I felt that none of those things applied to me and thus, I concluded a Myaamia name was not for me.  

As I progressed through the Eewansaapita programming as a camper and later a counselor and began attending Miami University, I simultaneously increased my knowledge about Myaamia language and culture and became more nuanced in my personal identity as a Myaamia woman. I attended a few naming gatherings in particular, which demystified the process for me. Then, as nimihsa ‘my elder sister,’ was also increasing her engagement with the tribe, we began having discussions with koohkomena ‘our grandmother,’ George (the co-author of this post), and Daryl Baldwin about organizing a naming for us. 

My sister, nephew, and I all received our Myaamia names from our grandmother (and great-grandmother for my nephew) at the rehearsal dinner for my wedding.  Being able to share this with people that I love, Myaamia and non-Myaamia alike, was incredibly meaningful.

Image of Myaamiaki at Kiišikohkwa and Tim’s wedding where her grandmother gave names to grandchildren and great-grandchild.
Photo by Laurel C Scott Photography, LLC

Looking back, I now understand that my 10-year old brain was neither correct nor incorrect about who gets a Myaamia name.  Receiving a Myaamia name, particularly as an adult, means that an individual believes you hold knowledge and/or the intention to continue promoting Myaamia ways of being.  While it certainly doesn’t mean you have to be fluent in the language or do ribbonwork daily, receiving a name does bestow a certain amount of responsibility to carry on that name in a proper way. 

Like Kiišikohkwa (Haley), I (Meemeehšhkia – George) didn’t grow up with a Myaamia name. But noohsa ‘my father’ Caahca ‘George’ wanted a different experience for his grandchildren. After their birth, he took the initiative to seek out a name for each of them and find a family or tribal gathering at which he could formally give the name to them. He usually found a name for them and organized a naming gathering by the time they were one or two years old. Ninkwihsa ahšiimali Waakhšinka ‘my youngest son Jordi’ was given his name by noohsa at a gathering at the Meshingomesia Schoolhouse and Cemetery near Jalapa, Indiana. At this same gathering, there were multiple other children from other Myaamia families given names by their grandparents. I often tell Waakhšinka the story of his naming, and each retelling connects him to his name, to amehšoomali ‘his grandfather,’ to the other young people named on that day, and to a really beautiful place that’s important to many Myaamiaki.

We share these examples of namings within our families in order to provide examples of a practice in our community that we regularly receive questions about. However, the manner in which Waakhšinka and Kiišikohkwa received their names is not the only way naming happens in our community. Many individuals and families have created their own unique ways of bestowing names.

Stories of Myaamia Naming Practices  

One way we as a community can reduce the barriers that prevent people from engaging with the tribal practices (like naming) is to share our own stories and experiences with them.  By sharing our stories, people will be able to see themselves within them and ultimately see that they can be a part of these important cultural practices. The following stories do not necessarily refer to specific individuals but represent different routes that individuals in the community have taken to obtain a name. 

Some community members have grown up within the tribal community but do not have a family member who is able to give them a name.  In this instance, these individuals spend time developing close relationships with elders, teachers, or other knowledge-holders outside their family.  Once that relationship is close, those individuals ask the elders, teachers, or knowledge-holders to give them a name. Often, ahseema ‘tobacco,’ or something else of significance, is gifted to the knowledge-holder when they are asked to find a name for someone. A core component of this particular route is the reciprocity of the relationship-building process. 

Another route people have taken is to have a family member give them a name in English or another Native language (like Haley’s father).  After this has officially become their name, those individuals approach folks with expertise in Myaamiaataweenki to translate it to a close approximation of the same word in our heritage language. Sometimes, there are no direct translations from other languages into Myaamiaataweenki and therefore knowledge holders have a conversation with the family to get as close as they can to the word and the intention behind the name itself. 

A less common route is when a younger tribal member names an elder. Because we are in a period of the revitalization of Myaamiaataweenki, there are often families in which some of the younger generation have substantially more knowledge about the language than their parents or grandparents. As a result, sometimes these individuals will be the ones to give a family elder a Myaamia name. Sometimes the naming is the result of an elder asking for a name or a knowledgeable youth seeking to give back to their family and demonstrate respect. At times, this naming route can be a significant source of familial healing from past identity loss and is typically handled in consultation with older family members.

An increasingly common route among families is for a Myaamia grandparent to take on the responsibility of naming their grandchildren. Often, a grandparent will begin seeking a name after the birth of a grandchild and then give the name at an appropriate family gathering when the baby is at least a year old. Grandparents will often contact those who are knowledgeable about their family’s genealogy as well as language experts who can help identify historic family names or create new names when a grandparent believes it’s needed.

In each of these cases, great care is taken in thinking about what name will be given. In cases where a knowledge-bearer is gifted and asked to name someone it is common that months may pass before a name is identified and a group can be gathered to carry out a naming. You can read more about the naming process in the kiwiinsooneminaana ‘Our Names’ post. 

If you want to, we would love to hear the story of how you received your Myaamia name. Feel free to share that story either here within the comments section or on social media so our community can see your story! 

Myaamia Naming Practices in the Past

Each of these stories highlight the diverse practices that help make us strong as Myaamiaki. Much of this strength is generated by the strong threads of continuity tied to shared practices that stretch back into the deep time for us as a people. For example, The word eewiinsooniaanki can be translated as “we are named after someone” or “we are of a certain clan.” This is because at one time in our shared past, an individual’s name came from their clan. Among the Myaamia, clans were an extended kinship group that all shared descent from a common ancestor. To the best of our knowledge, clan belonging was inherited from one’s father (patrilineal descent). Historical information on Myaamia clans is limited, but based on related cultures, it is likely that each clan had a set of unique responsibilities that they carried out in order to help the larger community remain healthy and strong. Clans identified themselves through association with a specific animal, plant, or natural phenomena. For example, at one time there was a clan associated with the bird the Common Loon (Gavia immer) and many members of that clan carried names that referred directly or indirectly to Maankwa ‘Common Loon.’ These names were reused within each clan in a manner that connected each individual to not only to the clan, but also to the previous generations of kin that carried their name. Clan-based naming practices intertwined individuality with a powerful sense of intergenerational group belonging. 

Over time, clan-based naming practices declined in Myaamia village communities, but adaptations in naming practices maintained this intertwining of individuality and group belonging. Myaamia clans fell into dormancy as a result of massive population declines caused by generations of warfare and disease that accompanied European arrival in North America. During this period, the population of Myaamia villages collapsed and communities were forced to relocate or merge with other villages. Myaamia people responded to this chaos by shifting village organization to focus on extended family units connected through patrilineal and matrilineal descent as well as marriage. By the early 1800s, clans existed among the Myaamia only as a memory. As clan organization transitioned it is likely that their responsibilities fell to extended families. 

Throughout the 1800s, we can see that Myaamia names retained a strong thread of continuity to the names of the previous era. Certainly new names continued to be created, but Myaamia families showed a preference for giving names that were generations old. Within extended family groups, names from multiple clans began to mix together as families created new connections to these old names. In the historical record, we can see that certain families reused many of the same names across the generations, but these names might originally come from three or four different clans. It was a common practice in the past and remains common in the present to ‘reuse’ ancestral names.

Aahsansamohkwa ‘Esther Miller’ c. 1885 at Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle Pennsylvania.
Photo by John Choate from National Anthropological Archives

Due to our history of land loss, forced removal, population fragmentation, and harmful educational experiences at boarding schools our language and large parts of our culture went into steep decline in the early 20th century. During the boarding school era, many people were given English names as a part of the effort to assimilate these students into American culture. Because names are inherently tied to cultural knowledge, language, practices, and group belonging, the renaming of children was often a key first step taken by assimilationist minded educators. For example, the Peeyankihšia storyteller Tawaahkwahkinanka was known only by this name until he went to school and his teacher gave him the name “George Washington Finley.” This was an intentional act to try and strip Tawaahkwahkinanka of his heritage identity. 

In the 1960s, as a result of the losses mentioned above, Myaamiaataweenki entered a period of dormancy. During this period when our language was sleeping, a few families continued to give Myaamia names. However, our collective understanding of these names declined in this period and many more families gave names in English based on the translations of names found in family documents.

The Revitalization of Myaamia Naming Practices

In the 1990s, Myaamia language revitalization work sparked a surge of interest in Myaamia cultural practices. As our community’s understanding of our language expanded, many families began to re-engage in some of the naming practices that we described above. Speaking our language again strengthened the collective identity of the Myaamia community and as naming practices returned more broadly to the community they once again intertwined Myaamia individual identity within a context of intergenerational community belonging.

One significant challenge that we continue to face in the revitalization of naming practices is that Myaamia names are often the worst documented words in our language. In many cases, Myaamia names were recorded onto government documents (treaties, pay rolls, etc) by individuals who did not speak Myaamiaataweenki and therefore could not properly hear pronunciation. For this reason, there is a great deal of variation in the spelling of a single name. This can often confuse learners of our language as well as family members trying to revitalize naming practices. It is always best to check with someone knowledgeable about our language before using a historical name.

The revitalization of Myaamia naming practices highlights the powerful linkages between language and identity. Our own research shows that our nation is demonstrating gains in population, community engagement, and positive feelings towards our shared heritage and cultural identity. We believe that our growing resilience is directly tied to expanding use of our language and cultural practices by our community members. Receiving Myaamia names is an important part of this process. Resilience suggests that “people possess selective strengths or assets to help them survive adversity.” Myaamiaki have demonstrated such resilience in many facets of life, using the collective strengths of the community to help us persist in the face of a series of traumatic and harmful experiences. Through staying connected, we were and are able to gather as people and continue our cultural ways of being. 

Cathy Young with her grandchildren attending the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma’s Family Day at the Drake House in Miami, Oklahoma. Photo by Karen L. Baldwin

One such process that has helped us to stay connected as a community is the use of names. At community gatherings, I (Kiišikohkwa – Haley) hear people using Myaamia names whenever applicable in an attempt to show respect and as a mechanism for increasing bonds. When I hear a person call me Kiišikohkwa, I instantly am reminded that my identity is valued and important within a Myaamia space. Calling me “Haley” doesn’t invalidate that experience, but the use of my Myaamia name primes me mentally for a Myaamia experience.  That is the context of the interaction to come, inherently connecting me to that individual who used my Myaamia name. When this is done on a large-scale, it brings the community as a whole together and primes a space where Myaamia culture is at the forefront.  As a community, we are practicing resilience by using one anothers’ names. 

However, this resilience doesn’t just occur on the community-level; individuals also experience resilience through the use of their names. The Myaamia names we are given have meaning when bestowed in a way that continues our practice of weaving together individuality with community belonging and responsibility. Sometimes that meaning stems from a family name or a personality characteristic of the person.  Regardless of the origin of the name, it means something for how one can and does move through the world. My name, Kiišikohkwa or ‘Sky Woman,’ comes in part from my behavior as a child. My grandmother explained to me that I have always been a climber, since I was a child.  You can ask anyone in my family for the many hilarious stories about my climbing escapades.  However, I view it as a larger meaning as well. Not only are there past individuals with the name Kiišikohkwa whose spirit lives on within me, but I also view that climbing as a metaphoric representation of my desire to advance myself using the various support structures surrounding me. I always reach for the sky and try to grow (climb) as a being. When there are times in my life where I am feeling anxious or uncertain, I can fall back on my name and the meaning behind it to guide me in what to do next. This name and the meaning that stems from an observed (presumably positive) characteristic of my life sustains me with a source of resiliency to overcome these negative emotions.

The process of naming and using names for Myaamiaki is a way that we are able to carry on our cultural practices, show respect for our relatives, stay connected as a community, and increase our resilience. Regardless of where you are in your personal knowledge journey, we encourage you to spend time reflecting on and talking to other Myaamiaki about naming practices, your name (or your desire for a name), names within your family, or Myaamia names generally.

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