Thursday, July 7, 2016

What's in a name? No seriously, what?

While going through some recent finds on, I came across an interesting article about one of my wife's relatives, named Wakon Iron. It was brief, but advertised Wakon's upcoming performance at a meeting of the Pythian association, of which he was a member.

This caught my eye for a couple reasons. First, the article included a picture, the first I've seen of him. He reminds me of pictures I've seen of my wife's grandfather on that side, so it's really interesting to see a family resemblance there. Second, he was apparently an accomplished singer, given that the article touted his upcoming performance as "one of the outstanding numbers" to be given at the lodge meeting. 

But the most interesting thing about the article is what it says about his name. It gives both his English name, Wakon Iron (including a nickname "Wake" that I hadn't heard before), and his Osage name, Wah-Kon-Te-Ah. The Osage name is spelled exactly as I've seen it written in the Osage censuses, so either the article's author was familiar with Osage names, or maybe it was dictated by Wakon Iron himself. The article says Wakon did not know the exact meaning of the first half of his name in English, which I found interesting. Having studied a few languages myself, I know that there are some words you just can't easily translate from one language to another. "Ganbare" in Japanese comes to mind - it kind of means good luck and try your hardest at the same time, so how do you express that succinctly in English? 

We tend to think of names as being different though, especially surnames. Someone's surname is usually understood to mean something, and just that something. For example, Gibson means son of Gib, which I'm told is a pet name of Gilbert. So way back somewhere there was a Gilbert who had a son, and his descendants were known as Gib's sons, or Gibsons. Japanese names are similar - Yamanashi means mountain pear, Nakayama means middle of the mountain, Kamiooka means up big hills. Apparently Osage names are not so easily translated. 

So that got me thinking - what about my wife's most distant Indian ancestor's name? His name was written Wy-e-gla-in-kah in the Indian census rolls, the earliest of which I'd found dated to 1888. Unlike US Federal censuses, the Indian censuses were taken every year (makes me wish all censuses were done that way!) and Wy-e-gla-in-kah dutifully shows up in many of them. However, from 1888 - 1896 he had no English name given, just his Indian name. There are two listings for him in 1897 (one is a school census, one is the general population census). The population census lists him with no English name, but the school census gives him an English name - Ray Nosent. His son Tsa-Moie was listed with the English name of Raymond Nosent. I didn't know what "Nosent" means - not sent? No scent? No sentence? Something else entirely? 

From 1898-1906, he is back to just his Indian name, no English name. However, his son Tsa-Moie starts appearing in 1904 as Raymond Red Corn, first with his Indian name, and later without it. Then in 1907, Wy-e-gla-in-kah has an English name of Red Corn for the first time. He keeps that name for the rest of his life, until his passing in 1927. 

I'd always thought Wy-e-gla-in-kah literally translated to Red Corn, and that he went by that name and passed it to his son Raymond/Tsa-Moie as they adopted the Western practice of surnames. Judging from the census records, it almost looks like Red Corn was an invention of his son's that he adopted. So if his name didn't mean Red Corn, what does it mean? Is a literal English translation of his name possible? 

I went back to the censuses, trying to look for clues about some of the other members of his family - his son Wah-kon-te-ah, as well as an aunt of Wakon Iron's named Moh-se-che-he that (judging from the censuses) raised Wakon Iron from the time he was a toddler. While going through those records, I found Red Corn in the 1887 census, a year earlier than the earliest record I'd previously found. This one was different - it gave English names for both Wy-e-gla-in-kah and Tsa-Moie, but names I'd never seen anywhere else. The father's name was "Thoughtless" and the son's name was "Dead Beat". 

When I showed this to my wife, her reaction was the same as my initial reaction - that the agent taking the census had taken some...liberties in translating their names and called them whatever he wanted to. Some quick research showed me that guidelines regarding the literal translation of names and rules against the use of demeaning names didn't come down until 1902, or 15 years after this census was taken. So why would he be given the name "Thoughtless" if not as a jab at the fellow, one that he would probably never know had been given? 

But then, while flipping through the pages of the 1887 census, I found something unexpected - another Osage named Wy-e-gla-in-kah, several years younger than my wife's ancestor, Somehow I'd gotten the idea that no one else would have that name, as though everyone in the tribe would have a totally unique name that exclusively belonged to only them. Obviously that's not the case (has it ever been the case in any society? I highly doubt it). But this younger man had an English name as well - Thoughtless. The idea that an agent would insult two Osages several years apart in age in the exact same way just because they had the same name seemed very unlikely. Maybe there was more to this name than I originally thought. 

Wy-e-gla-in-kah in Osage clothing
So I turned to that never-failing source if knowledge and wisdom - Facebook. I quickly found a couple Facebook groups regarding Native American genealogy, and one specifically geared towards Osage language and culture. I put my questions to them, and they responded with some very interesting information. I was told that "the name referred to him being enraged in battle and fearless so much that he fought like he was out of his mind. Hence the literal translation of-"Without a Mind" or "No Thought"." The "Nosent" name was another translation, and actually should have been written "No sense" with the same idea of bravery to the point of senselessness. That put a very different spin on the name! The gentleman that gave me this information gave another example of a name's translation causing confusion: 

"Once, when I was a teenager, I heard the named of Osage man called by his name "Big Ugly". I chuckled at the name and my Elders severely criticized me for "thinking like a white man". They said to them, when they heard that man's name, they all saw a clear image of the face of a very large angry Buffalo bull that was ready to charge."

Wy-e-gla-in-kah in Western clothes
He also recommended I get an Osage dictionary, and suggested an edition written by Carolyn Quintero. My genealogy budget is still in recovery after my trip to California, but I look forward to picking it up and seeing what else I can learn about the names of my wife's Osage ancestors. 

I still don't know where the name Red Corn comes from, but I do now know who first used it, and that's a clue. I also have a better idea of what the name Wy-e-gla-in-kah really means, and it makes me more curious about the man that was given that name. Did he actually fight in battle? If so, did he fight Indians, whites. maybe both? More questions! 

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