Little Joe wasn’t surprised when he discovered he was Native American. He had brown eyes, dark hair and some of his friends called him “Chief.” On his 13th birthday he decided to find out who his birth parents were. He had a good adopted family who provided him with an excellent education and a healthy life. But he wanted more.
His parents had passed away and he had no close relatives. He needed to know what Indians were really like. He felt the cowboy and Indian movies and brief mentioning in history books didn’t expose the essence of Indian culture. But that was all that 97 percent of Americans knew about Indians.
Little Joe felt lucky to meet one of his tribal elders and learn about tribal culture. The first thing his elder said was,
“It is traditional for you to call me Uncle.”
“Why Uncle? I heard Grandfather was used in movies.”
“Some tribes use Grandfather. But in our tribe if you are not referring to your relative Grandfather means Creator-God.”
“How do you say Uncle in our dialect?”
“Twasen — when connecting parent is dead. Sem-al — for father’s brother. Kash-ah — for mother’s brother.”
“What does it mean if you are not related?”
“It is said with respect for the elder. We respect elders for their knowledge and their long life. Our tribe has a high fatality rate.”
“My parents have passed on, so do I call you Twasen?”
“Yes, and in any case when not related. By the way, Little Joe, my nickname is Big Joe.”
“Wow, that’s cool. Why are you called Big Joe?”
“We call our little boys ‘Ttwit’ until they become old enough to show their personality.”
“Then what happens?”
“We have a Naming Ceremony to give him his grown-up name.”
“How do you choose the new name?”
“Many times it is an ancestor but it is also a consensus of what people think of him. The family elder makes the final decision.”
“So you were called Big Joe because of your size?”
“Not entirely. Yes, I am a little bigger, but I also have big ideas. I never thought small.”
“So the name is a reflection of who you are.”
“Yes, and we hand that thought down to the next generation with the Coyote story “Naming of the Animals.”
“Tell me about it.”
“It is a long story about Coyote wanting to change his name because nobody respects him. He thinks if he gets a better name, like Eagle, respect will come with it. But of course you have to earn your respect. Spirit Chief, who names the animals, explains that by describing all aspects of Indian culture.”
TO BE CONTINUED...
Wendell George writes Go-la’-ka Wa-wal-sh (Raven Speaks). He can be reached via email at email@example.com. His books are available at the local book stores, tribal museum and Amazon.