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Making a Name

It's human names we think about, of course, when anyone first speaks of "naming." But everything we refer to has to have some name, and people who go by the Bible will speak of Adam's naming everything: as God formed each creature, it was brought before Adam (Gen. 2:19-2o), and whatever Adam would call it, that would be its name. But among all these animals there was not found a helper and companion for Adam, so God created Eve out of Adam's rib, and then Adam gave HER the right generic name, which in English translates as "woman," explaining that (in Hebrew) this name implies that she was taken from "man" and is "bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh" (Gen. 2:20-23). Later, after the Fall, when God had decreed that she was to become the mother of all living humans, Adam named her "Eve." As for the name of Adam, he is referred to before the Fall simply as "the man": only after the Fall, when God is condemning him to till the earth and earn a living by the sweat of his brow, does the story refer to him as "Adam" (Gen. 3:17). In the Hebrew original, the names refer to their God-given roles as First Man and First Woman, as Parents, as Laborer and as Child-giver. The names have their Creation Story packed inside them like software, shaping their meanings and functions. Or, to take an older metaphor, their past and future beings are packed inside them as an oak is packed within an acorn.

The Judeo-Christian Creation Story fingers the primal human male as source of all names within human language-an authority given and confirmed by God himself, so that if anyone should ask "Why do we call an ant an ant? or a woman a woman? or one man Adam, one woman Eve?" there is a story to explain why, and it is a sacred story with the weight of God's own approval behind it. That is pretty much the way with Creation Stories and human language, particularly in their account of names for people or places or things or any creatures—though maybe not all Creation Stories are so patriarchal about the matter as the Hebrew account in Genesis.

But we do not live in biblical times, and our names are not linked so directly to divinity and authority, nor felt to have such absolute rightness and accuracy. To mention just a couple of matters not talked about in the Book of Genesis: in European societies—including the United States—property, status and power are closely tied to human names; and users of the English language are distanced from its vital center by certain features which (as will be shown) involve names. I want to talk about these matters a little, by way of meditation, not just because they are oddly patterned, but because their colorful surface covers a pulsing body of meaning. I'll begin with a less touchy area—the names of birds and plants—before moving into surnames and "Christian names" and marital settlements and legitimate heirs, and then into certain American places and their names.

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Looking for the Right Names

But what if naming was still an active process for those learning the language? We see what that might be like when we read Charles Eastman's fascinating Indian Boyhood, whose paperback reprint may still be found in many bookstores. Eastman, born about 1858, was raised, to the age of fifteen, among his Santee Sioux people—at first in Minnesota, then as a four-year-old fleeing with them into Canada after the massacres of 1862.7 Indian Boyhood, published in 1902, is Eastman's account of his life to age 15, and describes in considerable detail how he was educated as an Indian. His uncle was in charge of this education, and when Eastman would leave the tepee each morning, would tell him to look well at everything he saw, and when Eastman returned, would "catechize [him] for an hour." One thing on which he catechized him is thus described by Eastman:

It was his custom to let me name all the new birds that I had seen during the day. I would name them according to the color or the shape of the bill or their song
or the appearance and locality of the nest ... anything that impressed me as characteristic. He then usually informed me of the correct name. Occasionally I made
a hit and this he would warmly commend.8

Eastman's account shows us that among the Santee, a boy of eight or ten could be sent out to invent a name for each bird he saw, and sometimes his name would turn out to be exactly the one used by the tribe for that bird. This seems extremely unlikely for a speaker of English, where so many names are not evidently descriptive or figurative. Yet it is surely the case that humans, if their language is not so enclaved as English is, will develop similar figurative or descriptive terms for what they observe. We can easily imagine a boy going out and seeing what we call a bluebird, and returning to report he had seen a BLUE BIRD. Of course, given its red-orange belly and white underparts, he could plausibly call it a red-white-and-blue bird, or (reaching a bit) an American-flag-bird, or even (if it were Bastille Day) a Tricolor-bird. Eastman's account shows that among Santee speakers this was possible with ALL the birds. Learning their names was part of learning to look closely, observe precisely, report accurately. No doubt an Osage Indian boy, if sent out to look at insects and name them, might have come back and reported that he had seen a ni-dse-thi tonga, "big-yellow-rump," and his uncle would realize he meant a "bumblebee"—for which that is the Osage word, according to Francis La Flesche.9

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Getting Personal

Now a question so far untouched: what about our own "personal" names? I know it is possible to look up the "original" meanings of, say, Theodore or Dorothy, and find that both mean "gift of God." I know it is possible to show that many of our "surnames" or "family names" come from earlier crafts and occupations (Baker, Wheelwright, Carter, Smith, Fletcher—a maker of arrows, one who put the feathers on), or places (Lincoln, Shannon, Revard), or from appearance (White, Black, Brown, Whitehead, Long, Short). I know many names are biblical and link their bearers to history and ultimately to the Hebrew Creation Story. I know many Jews were forcibly renamed in Germany before or during the Hitler regime, and I know many people have both an ethnic or religious "true name" and a civil or outward "legal name." There are nicknames which may point to personal history or professional achievements or parental malfeasance—which is to say, each nickname carries a real story about the person so named, a story that the name-givers thought important enough to make every address to this person carry a reminder of that story.

And yet, and yet! when I ask students in a class I teach on American Indian Literature to tell me about names, and what their particular names "do" for them, I always get from them just accounts implying that a name is a way of individualizing the person named, as if individualizing were the whole of becoming a person. Almost never does a student see, at first, that the network of names links those who are named to a whole social system, to a religious structure. (Even if that "family tree" of religion is "dead," as when a Student claims to be an atheist or to have renounced the family faith, much still lives in its hollow trunk and leafless branches-things come out at night to their dreaming selves from that religious background and sing old songs with the dreamers.) We seem carefully cued to believe, in American society, that names are JUST personal or, at most, familial, not SOCIAL. Our whole society is taught to believe that a Julia Doe is unique, that the name merely lets us know who is being singled out, when in fact the name usually genders the person named, echoes nationality, hints at ethnicity, suggests religion, and of course allows Social Security benefits, international travel (passport, that is), inheritance rights-and, for a good many years, has keyed marital status for women.

What, then, of our "full legal" names-those we must carry on "identity" cards, those we must show are legally ours, before we can legally inherit, or bequeath? We are expected, it is true, to have unique personal names, and since human population exploded in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this has meant in European culture that each person needs a unique combination of several names. We are expected to have a "family" name, which shows we are "legitimate" and can legally inherit from our true parents. Also, in American naming custom, we have a "first" name (often called a "Christian" name until fairly recently), and very often a "middle" name. These first and middle names are supposed to be given purely according to the wishes or whims of the parents, but as we all know they often link us to older family members. And just to spell out a little more the religious dimension, in certain sects there are ceremonial linkages for these names—they may for instance "belong" to saints of the Catholic church, thus linking the named person to the stories and the power of a martyr or virgin or teacher. Once that linkage is established it takes the named person back through time to the founder of the religion, that is (in the Catholic way), Jesus Christ; and then still further, back to the Jewish Creation Story, which Jesus (according to Christians) reauthenticated in his version of that religion. So names in Christian culture do point back through many ways to the Creation Story, just as we see is true for Osages, for instance.10

But there are too many of "us" to be sure of having unique names with only three or four "name-slots" to fill—which is why American names are turning now into numbers. A Social Security number is needed whenever one is to receive a fee or wage—"personal names" are not enough, because there are too many Thomas Jefferson Smiths and John Hernandez Does. It is startling to think that in the early days of telephones, one simply picked up the speaker and asked for a particular person, and the "operator" could put one through. The assigning of a unique NUMBER to each person makes excellent sense—and yet I wonder what this means. Numbers don't have stories, at least not out in the open. Numbers are precisely what we use when we want to ignore all possible differences between, say, a thousand spiders and a thousand bridal nights, and want to talk about only the properties of the number one thousand. "Mathematics," Bertrand Russell remarked, "is that occupation in which we do not know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true." We have so many children now that we have to use numbers to talk about them; urban shoes make forgetful mothers.

Naming America: "Amherst"

But so far we have not looked at our signpost names, those which tell us where we live, where we come from, where we are headed. Let's move, then, from persons to places, from individual to national and international—let's look briefly at what we call the places where we live, between name and number. What looks redeyed from under the campus of a college, the cemeteries of our dead warriors, the asphalt parking lots, urine-drenched projects, photogenic penthouses of our shining cities on their hills?

Let me start with a meditation on the name of a New England college town, and what lies beneath that name. It's an attractive little place in north-central Massachusetts called Amherst, named for Jeffery, Lord Amherst, who was a British military commander in the "French and Indian Wars" of the eighteenth century. The main branch of the University of Massachusetts is located on the north side of Amherst, and Amherst College (prestigious and expensive Little Ivy League place) on its south side. Amherst is famous, among literary types, as the home town of Emily Dickinson, whose father and brother were important officers and trustees of Amherst College, and while I was teaching at Amherst College in the late 1950s you could still smell their family scandals but you would hear only tight-lipped silences about them, the scandals not yet in print, because the mongering of them was not yet so fiercely driven by academic publish-or-perish insanity.

But why exactly is the town called Amherst? Of course, it is named FOR a particular man, Jeffery, Lord Amherst—but why for him, of all people? Well, let me slip into this mystery by a back way, cloaked in a little "personal" anecdote.

When Robert Frost, who had long been a faculty member of Amherst College, would come through town for his annual Chapel talk and poetry reading, it was usual for him to be brought out to the house of an English faculty member and sit around explaining the world as it appeared to the greatest living writer of poetry in English. As a young instructor, I listened in on a couple of these occasions and was richly entertained. In one of these sessions, someone remarked that I was not only from Oklahoma but was part Osage Indian, and when Frost learned this he immediately told me his very first poem had been written, when he was in high school and reading Parkman's history of Mexico, on the Indian side of the matter, against Cortez and the Conquistadores, and for Montezuma." A little polite sparring followed this, because I knew that another Frost poem, "The Vanishing Red," hardly shows a pro-Indian handling of its events and characters: its main character, a malevolent miller, waits until the dumb Indian who has come gawking around the mill's machinery is hanging right over the dangerous part, and then shoves the Indian into the machinery, where of course he "vanishes."

The poem, though powerful and disturbing, is neither anti-Indian nor pro-Indian; rather, like Frost's macabre "Out, Out . . ." it is a bleak and Hardyesque piece, speaking to the way technology and European proprietors nastily helped Indians vanish, abetted by a conspiracy of silence. Grim, but accurate history—and granted that Frost shows this Indian as stupid, his poems are full of non-Indians being clobbered for clumsy ignorance of social codes and procedures. True, there is considerable difference between being covered with a load of hay and shamed, as happens to a non-Indian in "The Code," and being pushed to one's death in steel machinery, as happens to "The Vanishing Red." Yet in "The Code," the man who forked that load of hay onto the code-breaking farmer "meant" murder, and the poem's narrator implies that had the offender been smothered to death, the witnesses would have regarded him as deserving it. This poet sometimes casts a cold eye on life and death.

To me, then, that Amherst evening gave serious pleasure, so far as my few exchanges with Frost were concerned. I had profound respect for him, and far too great admiration for the subtlety and magnificence of his poems to worry whether one among them was what—as a human being not wanting Indian people to be slurred—I would have preferred it to be. I had no quarrel with Robert Frost's writing about Indians, or far less than I have with Shakespeare's writing about Welshmen and Irishmen. There was another reason, though, why the question of Indians in relation to Amherst was a ticking package in the room just then. The package was labeled "tenure," and it was addressed to me, in care of the English Department. By then I had come to know that the department's major power wanted me out and would prevail—and being thus ostracized where I sat, I took this Indian question as oddly relevant. Asserting myself to be Indian had been a part—small, a mere pea under forty mattresses of departmental considerations—of what set me off from those who would get tenure. I had clearly, and not just casually, presented myself as Oklahoman and Indian, in ways that made me seem unsuitable to the shrewd old Scotch bull of that department, who had sat silent but focused like a burning glass on my brief back-and-forth with Frost.

It wasn't only the question of Frost's Indian poems. Once, that night, somebody referred to the College's official song, which has a line about how Lord Jeffery "fought the Indians," and I said I objected to that line, that it did not seem to me the college should keep that line in a song the students were taught to sing. I glanced from the amused face of Robert Frost over to the unamused scowl of the departmental power, and I saw more clearly why I would be leaving Amherst: not only was I unsuited to them, but they to me. My little exchange about Lord Amherst was filed carefully, I supposed, with the fact that I had once asked mildly (when someone mentioned to me that the town of Deerfield a few miles north of Amherst was where a notorious massacre by Indians had occurred) why in the world those Indians would want to attack a town of people, just for settling on their hunting grounds. And very likely neither exchange seemed of real importance to those listening: they were just a tiny part of reasons why the town and college and I were not really suited for each other, did not fit, rubbed the wrong ways, smelled mutually bad.

It could have been worse. I had heard, even then, of how Jeffery had fought the Indians—with smallpox-infected blankets, at times—but on that evening, I did not throw that particular red blanket in front of the departmental bull. I think that I actually doubted, at that time, whether the accusation was well documented; I vaguely recall that some Amherst person with historical credentials had assured me it was probably a slander. Since then, I have seen reputable scholarly assertions that Lord Amherst called for the use of small-pox germs against the Indians, though I have not myself researched the documentation for those assertions.12

So under the name set upon that beautiful little town with its lovely college, magnificent poets, splendid students, extremely able teachers, there was a buried history of ethnic cleansing, carried out with the help of germ warfare, that was an important part of the British aristocracy's fight for imperial dominance against the French aristocracy. The town, and the college, had been given this name precisely because that particular English lord had fought the Indians. Within this "mere school song" of gentleman scholars from clean families, there was direct reference to that history, and not to support the singing of it was to take a different view of New England history, of American history. Only a churl, only someone born and brought up in Indian Territory, would have the tactless gall to so much as hint at these things. I do wonder whether that might possibly have been one glittering thought in the brilliant old mind of Robert Frost, friend of Montezuma, when at the evening's end he turned in the doorway, put up a hand with palm out, and said to me , Goodnight —Indian!" I am glad, because his poems have been and are part of the bright side of this universe for me, that I did not answer with like irony, though I nearly did: "Good night—Yankee!"

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Copyright © 1998. Carter Revard.
All Rights Reserved.

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