Is there a particular reason that Native American names, such as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Black Hawk, or Red Cloud, are translated into English phrases?

As far as I know, no other culture's names are treated as such: the vast majority seem to have their names converted (more or less) phonetically, so Hirohito (Emperor of Japan) is simply referred to as "Hirohito" and not "Abundant Benevolence." Marcus Antonius has become Mark Antony to modern people, but Julius Caesar remains Julius Caesar, and not "Soft-Down Beard." Genghis Khan's name was "Temujin," but I've never seen him referred to as "Iron Man."

Even names that are phrases or poetic nicknames, like "Joseph Stalin", are usually rendered similarly to their native language ("Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin") rather than being translated into something like "Joseph of Steel," even though that was his intent in Russian.

Is there something about Native American languages that makes the translation of their names more accurate or natural than a phonetic rendering? Is it a cultural matter, that their names have some inter-lingual significance that other cultures' names do not? Was there a deliberate choice or commentary on this practice as it was developing?

Or did someone just translate a name one day, and the practice stuck?

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    Maybe people found the names hard to pronounce. Americans butcher Chinese names on account of being somewhat tone-unaware and the transliteration scheme is unhelpful to the nonspecialist. Dec 11, 2014 at 2:20
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    Interesting question, but I get the impression that history.SE may have members who are better qualified to answer it.
    – prash
    Dec 11, 2014 at 11:48
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    @prash I thought the same thing, but the last time I posted a question about languages (Native American languages, no less), they closed it for being off-topic and told me to re-post it here. They're fairly close-happy over there.
    – Nerrolken
    Dec 11, 2014 at 17:05

2 Answers 2


The answer to the question about modern practice is 'convention'. In general awareness Native American names have the form of 'Epithet Object/Animal' such as 'Red Cloud' or 'Crazy Horse'. Therefore you will see activities like children picking 'Native American Names' in this format. This is puzzling (or possibly even traumatising) to actual Native American children who're just as likely to be called George or Bill as anything else.

Many would claim (with some justification) that this convention has the result of creating the exotic other and minimizes the achievements of Native Americans as well as the malign impact of the intruders who are now the 'natives' of the land.

What are the origins of this convention? This would need a detail study of the sources but I suspect that it goes back to the Sioux Wars because all the most famous Native Americans known by their 'translated' names are Lakota (Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud). They were made further famous by cultural efforts such as Buffalo Bill Wild West show. All the prominent natives of earlier eras are known by names approximating the sounds of the original language (Squanto, Pocahontas, Hiawatha, Geronimo, Tecumseh, Seattle, etc.) But it's possible that the tradition goes further back (and I'm sure the various ins and outs are far more complex).

Why the names of people like Sitting Bull were translated rather than used in their original form is not clear to me (I couldn't find any research). But one reason could be their particularly expressive nature when compared to other native naming conventions. It could also be that their bearers chose to translate them when communicating with English speakers.

Cross-cultural and cross-linguistic naming is a very complex and thorny issue (not least because different people ascribe different levels of importance to names). For example, many people choose to anglicise their names (Istvan to Stephen or Friedrich to Fred) others do not (Ivan vs John). Even within English you have identical sources for different names (Ian, John, etc.).

  • Interesting point, about the Lakota connection. As you say, the ultimate answer may not even be known or knowable, but this is a good answer to the question!
    – Nerrolken
    Dec 11, 2014 at 22:13
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    I doubt that native American names are more expressive than, say, ancient Greek names. As you have pointed out, I suspect that this difference has to do with “minimizing the achievements” or, more bluntly, racism.
    – mach
    Dec 15, 2014 at 10:47
  • I always thought we did that because the natives actually did that when speaking to us. They recognized their names as common words and translated with the rest. I've seen the same really far back in western history and think this is the more pure form of translation.
    – Joshua
    May 4, 2023 at 18:49

I think, the names in the other languages like Greek or Arabic that have their meaning in those languages are standardized, for example 'Abdullah' meaning 'God's Servant' was and is given to millions of people, while the Native American names are unique and individual, they are given to just one person each.

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    This is a rather interesting point. Wondering why this answer didn't get any votes for merely an year. Dec 1, 2015 at 15:28

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