What's in a Name?
In the late 1700's and all through the 1800's many Cherokees
adopted the European tradition of using surnames and passing
the name on to their children. Many chose European surnames
such as Adair, Vann, Starr, Price, Grant, Hicks, Guess, Ward,
Smith, Taylor, Ross, or Boudinot.
Some Cherokees translated the meaning of their Cherokee names
into the English equivalent word, such as Bean, Walker, Bear
Paw, Tadpole, Wolf, Locust, Flea, Cricket, Rider, Pumpkinpile,
Acorn, Housebug, Pigeon, or Smoke. In most Cherokee cases the
names made reference to a single animal, insect, plant, or part
of the environment, as opposed to the compound names common to
many other Indian tribes like He Who Thinks, Holy Bear, Little
Beaver, White Buffalo Calf Woman, or Thunder Over the Mountains.
Compound names did appear among the Cherokees but not as
frequently, like Goingsnake, Bellowingsnake, Dreadfulwater,
Going Up Stream, Big Drum, Arrowkeeper, Broken In Two, Swimmer,
Buck Scraper, Old Blanket, White Man Killer, or Tobacco Mouth.
In addition, some Cherokees anglicized their Cherokee names
by translating the Cherokee language sounds into the English
alphabet. Examples are Oo Ta Wo Ta, Ooh Lah Nea Tah, Ahquatageh,
Ko Tut Tih Nih, Kow Wee Te Tee, Te Ke Nas Ki, Tehital Leh Ih,
Wah Wha UU Ta Ainih. As you can probably see from just these
few examples, the possibilities are great for inconsistencies,
confusion, multiple spellings of the same names and errors.
Many of these names first were translated to English writing
when the U.S. government and military census roll takers were
out in the field enumerating the Indian Nations. This problem
was in no way exclusive to the Cherokees or even Indians for
that matter. It was experienced to some degree by all the
tribes and by the non-English speaking immigrants to the
United States at the ports of entry like Ellis Island, when
they had to declare a name. Errors naturally arose as a result
of the different census takers' ears for translating the
Cherokee sounds into English syllables. It also led to
variability from roll to roll in how an individual person's
name might be spelled. An additional problem was that the
original Cherokee territory was so large that regional
dialects developed. This too probably influenced the
variability in the census takers' recordings.
Another related problem was the lack of standardization in
the use of English letters to represent sounds. For example,
are "U", "Uu", and "Oo" the same sounds? Are "Te" and Teh"
the same sounds or different sounds? Are "Aw" and "Ah" the
same or different? Is "Lil Lih" the same name as "Lilih"?
Both names appear on the 1883 Hester Roll. Is "Oosowee" the
same name as "Oosowih"? How about "Oooo So Wee"? All three
names appear on the 1908 Churchill Roll.
A final problem is the natural evolutionary change of the
Cherokee language. The demands of the last 150 years have
led to many changes in the language. Foremost, of course,
is Sequoyah's invention of the Cherokee Syllabary, After
many false starts to develop a written language, he finally
settled on a series of symbols to represent the different
syllable sounds. This led to almost full tribal literacy in
a remarkable short time. It also had the tendency over time
to force regional differences out of the language. The same
symbol was used to represent two similar yet slightly
different sounds, such as "g" and "k" sounds, and "t" and
"d" sounds. Holmes and Smith (1977) point out several flaws
in the Syllabary. None-the-less, the drive to save the
Cherokee language, when so many native tongues were lost,
led to the standardization of the English spelling of
Cherokee words. The Cherokee-English Dictionary published
by the Oklahoma Cherokee Nation made great strides towards
the maintaining the existence of the language for future
generations, but it also eliminated many of the well-
established ways of representing Cherokee names in English.
For example, "Oo" was commonly used to represent the "u"
sound, like in the English word "moon." The Cherokee
dictionary now spells all those words with a single English
"u". The Cherokee Syllabary alphabet has no symbol to
represent the consonant "ch" sound, so those words are given
the Cherokee Symbol for either the sound "tsu" or "tsv".
These problems come back to haunt researchers when tracing
back genealogical records. A case in point was when I was
asked to search Cherokee records for the relatives of people
living today with the modern surname of CHUKALATE. That
particular spelling was not found listed on any of the rolls.
But the following similar names were found:
CHUC KA LUKA
CHOO CHO LUT TAH
CHU CHA LA TAH
CHU CH OL LA TEH
CHU KO LA TO CHU CHA LA THE
CHOO QUA LA TIH
CHUH KA HEH
CHOO KO LUT TO YIH
CHOO CO LA TAH
Several other names were also similar, but not nearly as
similar as these. This makes it very difficult to accurately
trace lineage back in time. Careful scanning of the details
of the application files of the rolls is important. As another
example, while researching the surname CLOUD I discovered at
least six different spellings for the Cherokee version of
CHOO LO KIL LEH
OO LAW GIH LUH
OO GEH WE
YOO OO LAW
GILL OO GU LAW
GA LUH ULAGILI
Whenever you are searching any Native American genealogy
resources, you must be alert to possible alternate spellings.
You must recognize that somewhere in the 1880's many Native
Americans took on new names or anglicized versions of their
native names. Before that time, it was not common practice
to hand your surname on to your children.
It may become necessary for you to hire a native speaking
Cherokee researcher to interpret the variation in names. That
person can try to link the English spelling to Cherokee
syllables to help determine whether the variations between two
similarly spelled names represents the same name spelled
differently, or two different names. For those people tracing
Cherokee roots, it may be a frustrating barricade to cross,
but the good side is you will learn a little bit about the
structure of your native tongue.
References: Blankenship, Bob, "Cherokee Roots,
Volume 1: Eastern Cherokee Rolls and
Volume 2: Western Cherokee Rolls, 2nd Editon".
Cherokee, NC: Bob Blankenship, 1992.
Chiltosky, Mary Ulmer, "Cherokee Words with Pictures"
Mary Ulmer and G.B. Chiltoskey, 1972.
Feeling, Durban, "Cherokee-English Dictionary",
Edited by William Pulte in collaboration with Agnes
Cowen, Charles Sanders, Sam Hair, Annie Meigs, and
Anna Gritts Kilpatrick Smith,
Tahlequah, OK: Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, 1975.
Holmes, Ruth Bradley and Smith, Betty Sharp,
"Beginning Cherokee, 2nd Edition", Norman, OK:
University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.
Mooney, James, "History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of
the Cherokees" (1885), 1898. 1932),
Reprinted: Asheville, NC:
Historical Images (Bright Mountain Books), 1992.
"History of the Cherokee Indians and Their Legends and
Folk Lore" (1921),
Reprinted Tulsa, OK: Oklahoma Yersterday Publications,
Woodward, Grace Steele, "The Cherokee Indians" Norman, OK:
University of Oklahoma Press, 1963.
THIS IS AN OFFICIAL
SOVEREIGN AMONSOQUATH BAND OF CHEROKEE GOVERNMENT SPONSORED WEB
PAGE MAINTAINED BY: Rainbow Eagle Woman.