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Alaska Native Naming Traditions


Before entering a detailed discussion of the effect of naming conventions upon kinship terminology, here are general facts about names and some broad statements about patterns of name conferral.

A naming system in which kinship plays a key role is teknonymy, which identifies an individual in terms of their relationship to someone else. An example of teknonymy would be calling a woman “the mother of so-and-so” in place of her given name, where “so-and-so” is the name of her child. In instances of teknonymy, “the mother of so-and-so” becomes her new name. The work on kinship and its relation to personal names is relevant because the giving of Native Alaskan names is based on kinship ties to a recently deceased individual.

Beliefs About Native Names

Four different boundaries are found in Native Alaskan names. The first two sections, life versus death and past versus present, are important because they reflect Native Alaskan beliefs about names and naming practices. The third section illustrates the ways in which Native Alaskan names are culturally important in an urban area like Anchorage. The final section, on the boundary between native and non-native, is particularly important given the colonial history of Native Alaskans. When missionaries gave Native Alaskans English names, the Native Alaskans lost their power to name themselves. There is a sense of cultural pride among those individuals who have a native name.

Life versus Death

Native Alaskan naming traditions follow the belief that the personal name is a type of soul an individual possesses. This name-soul detaches from the body when the person dies and is passed on by giving the name to a newborn. In this way, an individual can be reincarnated into the body of a newborn, since the name carries with it personality traits of its original bearer and all the bearers before him/her.  The life and memory of an individual is able to continue beyond death through the continued use of his/her name in subsequent generations.

Past versus Present

Names not only gather meaning from their past uses, but are also imbued with meaning based on present uses.  This notion that not only are personal characteristics passed on through names but also kinship ties.

Young versus Old

Another boundary is the one that exists between the younger generation and the older generation when discussing native names.  Most non-native people only use their English names when talking to or about the younger generation. The reason for this is probably due only to the fact that non-native speakers cannot pronounce native names. Native Alaskan languages have phonemes and syllable combinations not used in the English language that makes it difficult for native English speakers to pronounce many of the words found in each language.

Native versus Non-Native

The final boundary found among the use of Native Alaskan names seems to be the most obvious: the difference between native and non-native ways of life.  It encompasses the differences between village life and life in an urban area. It is among these differences where we see many of the negotiations each of the people have to make regarding the use of his/her native name in everyday life.

Naming is an act of power, so when a newborn is given the name of a deceased relative, other relatives will refer to the newborn based on their own relation to the deceased. The giver of the name has the power to adjust kinship relations between the newborn and its relatives.

Today, it is more common to see Native Alaskan names on birth certificates and used in more public contexts. Native names might therefore be considered a heritage project; they are being used to connect the present with the past and indicate reclamation of native identity that was suppressed by the colonialism from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. 

Keeping a connection with the ancestral past is also one of the beliefs Native Alaskans still hold about their native names.  The use of Native Alaskan names keeps the past  previous users alive in the present by the belief that the personality traits of the deceased are now present in the new carrier of the name. Instead of having clearly defined generational boundaries, giving a previously used native name brings the generations together beyond death. Some of the participants mentioned this idea of giving their children a native name so as to give them a connection to their past and to keep the ancestral connection alive.  A native name can be used to trace someone’s family tree.

Native Alaskan names have inherent ties to the past, both in the way they are passed on through the generations, and also based on the colonial history of Native Alaskans in general. The act of naming inserts an individual into a social matrix, and Native Alaskans have to negotiate their way through different matrices: the one in which they can use their native name and the one in which they must use an English name.

Both Native Alaskan and English names also serve to index specific cultural events and relationships.  English names are used as a way of aligning with non-native speakers. The reason for this is because non-native speakers cannot spell or say native names. This makes sense, since the Native languages have odd spellings and use strange syllable structure a non-native speaker would find difficult. They also use phonemes we do not use in English, such as lateral, velar and uvular fricatives.

The knowledge of naming practices is still passed on from elders to the current generation.

A summary discussion of traditions pertaining to naming for some of the Alaska Native groups is provided below.


Traditionally, the Aleut bestowed on the infant at 40 days of a age a lineage name from either parent's kin group. Every name was imbued with meaning, such as reference to a war exploit or an incident of bravery.


The native people that live in the frozen Arctic lands in north Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, hold a naming ceremony called ‘atiq’ (pronounced ‘a-teek’) where the baby is just a few days old.  Within eight days after delivery a shaman performs a baptism that provides spiritual protection and assigns a name to the child. Often times this includes both an English name as well as an Inuit name.   

The Inuit traditionally believed that by adopting the name of a dead person or a class of things, they could take some of their characteristics or powers, and enjoy a part of their identity.  Atiq which means both ‘name’ and ‘spirit’, is the name of a family member who has died, usually a beloved older relative, like a grandparent. The Inuit believe in reincarnation and that the child receives the relative’s spirit, as well as his or her name. There are various ways of finding the right atiq, which include a birthmark in the same place as the departed or a dream of the dead relative while the woman is pregnant. It is also believed that a baby who cries incessantly when born will stop crying once the right atiq is given.

Although practically all Inuit have legal names based on southern naming traditions, at home and among themselves they still use native naming traditions. There too, names tend to consist of highly prosaic words.


Traditionally, Eskimo names were not sex-specific. Any name could be conferred upon either male or female. Since the introduction of the Christian first name, however, names have become sex-linked. This does not mean that an Eskimo last name now carries sex-specific connotations. Only the first name is sex-associated.

An Eskimo newborn was often named for a beloved deceased kinsperson of either gender. It was thought that some personality characteristics of that person would be manifested later in the child.

Every living Belcher Island Eskimo has two names: a Christian first name, usually of Biblical origin and suffixed by the ending -ii thus, for example, mosusii), and an Eskimo name, usually the term for some act, attribute, or natural phenomenon. The first name is of recent origin, having been introduced into the Islands after the turn of the century by missionaries. The two elements of the name have since become closely associated and are not conferred as a single unit.

Bering Strait Eskimos believe names represent souls of their holders. In this sense, names therefore maintain personal attributes of their previous holders. This allows characteristics of an individual to remain in the society after their death.  A name-soul, termed atiq, belongs in the social world of humans and that Eskimo groups have methods of ensuring a name-soul finds its way back to the world of the living after its holder dies.  When a person dies, their name cannot be uttered by anyone until it is reincorporated into the society by being given to a new member.  In order to reincorporate the name, it is given to the next child born into the group.  Once given to a newborn, the taboo on uttering the name is removed and the name-soul is once again recognized as a member of the society.

Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian

The Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian had an exogamous (meaning they married outside of their own group), matrilineal clan system, which means that the children trace their lineage and names from their mother (not their father as in the European system). This means the children inherit all rights through the mother, including the use of the clan fishing, hunting and gathering land, the right to use specific clan crests as designs on totem poles, houses, clothing, and ceremonial regalia.

Yup’ik, Cup’ik, and Inupiaq

Yup’ik/Cup’ik and Inupiaq names cross the boundary between past uses and present ones. The original carrier of the name imbued the name with meaning in the form of personality traits, and these traits are brought forth into the present when the name is given to a new individual. The new carrier of the name will then give the name their own meanings, which will then be passed on to whoever receives the name next.

Names can also cross the boundary between life and death. This idea is blatantly obvious when looking at Yup’ik/Cup’ik and Inupiaq names.  Names do not have to come from a recently deceased individual though.  Names can be pulled from further in the past and given new meaning in the present The idea that a deceased individual can be brought forth to continue living in the present based solely on the usage of a name illustrates how the boundary between life and death is fluid.


Traditionally, Tlingit naming took place within a complex social organization of ranked phratries, entailing an elaborate system of honorific names and clan designations that is beyond the scope of this report to describe. Briefly, every person had a "real" name as well as a nickname. The first name given a Tlingit infant at one year was usually that of a recently deceased relative of the maternal line, reflecting the belief that the child was the reincarnation of that person; "titles" or ancestral names might be bestowed upon the child when coming of age.

Athapaskan, Tanaina and Kutchin

Naming traditions appeared to be quite varied among Alaskan Athapaskan groups. Tanana and Kutchin practiced teknonymy, though several other groups appeared to have no particular patters of naming. Some subgroups of Tanaina also used teknonymy and some named a child after one of the parent's siblings or in a later period for a saint in the Russian Orthodox faith.




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