East Coast Version of What’s in an Indian Name

Post by Charnell

Photo courtesy of Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe web site

Far away from Navajoland, deep in the southern part of Virginia, the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe is reclaiming its heritage.  A small tribe of dispersed members, it is the only Iroquoian tribe still residing in the Commonwealth of Virginia claiming a documented continual existing “state recognized” status.

Their state recognition became official in 2010, and the tribe recently reclaimed 100 acres of sacred ground where they can meet and on which they will build a museum to honor their heritage.

Tribal recognition by the Commonwealth of Virginia, photo courtesy of Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe web site

Nottoway is an extinct Iroquoian language of Virginia. There are Nottoway Indians living today not only in Virginia, but also in Wisconsin and Canada where some of their ancestors fled in the 18th century. The language, however, has been almost entirely lost, known only from a few scanty wordlists jotted down 200 years ago. So the rebuilding has begun.

By now, you’re probably wondering why in the world Charnell Havens, who spent more than thirteen years researching the life of the Navajo artist Quincy Tahoma, would have any interest in the Nottoways. The reason is simply that my son-in-law Tommy and his family are card-carrying members of this American Indian tribe. His eighth generation grandfather was one of 13 Cheroenhaka chief men (councilman) who made his mark on the first deed of sale to a Colonial in 1735 for land in Virginia’s Isle of Wight County.

I was fascinated by the way that modern Cheroenhaka people’s names come to be, in contrast to the time-honored Navajo way.  In this Virginia tribe, member names are chosen by the individual and become officially registered when the person has reached the age of twelve.

Star Watcher, Running Fox and Shining Moon Melody watching ceremony, photo courtesy of Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe web site

Tommy, who is also part Cherokee and part English and part who-knows-what-else, has chosen a tribal name of Star Watcher. My grandson Trey, whose feet have wings (just watch him in any soccer match!) is Running Fox, and my daughter Amy will be Shining Moon Melody when she is accepted (by marriage) into the tribe. Little Ryan, although he does have a role number, will not become Sky Walker until he comes of tribal age. All the names they selected are surely okay by me.

Did I say “okay”?!!

According to one theory, the “okay” colloquialism came from the Iroquoisan dialect where the word for “yes” is “Ho-Keh”.  It seems that Thomas Jefferson received a written phonetic vocabulary of the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) language from one of the last known tribe descendants in early 1800s. In a letter dated July 7, 1820, Jefferson passed this document to a friend, Peter S. DuPonceau, Esq, in Philadelphia who published it. That document reveals the origin of the word “okay”.

This Nottoway expression, now used throughout the world, may have originated as a convenient way for early Colonials to communicate with the indigenous people.

You may learn more about native words and names when you read Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist.  We talked here about how Quincy got his unusual (for a Navajo) name. Do you have a story to tell about indigenous people reclaiming their ancestral name?

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3 Responses to East Coast Version of What’s in an Indian Name

  1. Janet Johnson says:

    My Great Great Great Grandmother was name Phoebe Thawbush and was from Virginia I am trying to figure out what tribe she belonged to. If you can help me please email me or call 828-334-5338 I am in the moutains of NC.
    Thank you

  2. pen4hire says:

    Janet, we have our hands full keeping track of Quincy Tahoma and his Navajo ties. We are definitely not experts on Virginia. Maybe Charnell’s daughter and son-in-law can help you. You can write directly to Charnell.

  3. Charnell says:

    Janet, I’m afraid I can’t help you either. I’d suggest that you try to trace your family tree to find specific geographic locations and names of your ancestors. That will narrow the search for you to prevalent tribes of these locales. When you have that, then I’d suggest you contact the tribes themselves for additional assistance. Sorry not to be able to help you more, gal, but this too massive a project for me to undertake.

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