My Indian Names

Creative Nonfiction published in The Sun, October 1997.

I left the University of Michigan in l977 to marry Selo Blackcrow, an Oglala Sioux spiritual leader (pipe carrier) and Old Treaty Council member on Pine Ridge Reservation.

We lived in a log cabin on 800 acres of grassland near the Badlands National Park and raised a sacred herd of buffalo.

One of the first things I learned when I moved to Pine Ridge is that I didn’t want an Indian name. As I watched other newcomers get named, I became convinced that I wanted to remain incognito.

After all, the general name for Whites, wasichu, is derogatory in several respects: it means takes the fat, or greedy and pushy; and iwasichu means talks too fast, yackety-yack, with the connotation of distracting or covering up something — dissembling.

One woman was given the name Snake Eyes, definitely derogatory; a writer was given the name, Rocks in His Head. A visiting millionaire was given Big Bucks Man, and another name that best translates as Ask Him for More.

My own two sons didn’t fare much better: one was called Vanilla Pudding, (white & soft); the other a name that best translates as Coyote Trotting & Shitting as He Trots.

So I knew I didn’t want an Indian name; the teasing is merciless — but my relatives teased only those people they liked.

Fortunately, my first Indian name was my legal one: Blackcrow. But did anyone on the reservation call me Dorothy Blackcrow? Of course not, they called me Selo-Taichu, which means Selo’s old lady, or my husband’s wife.

To this day, old gents recognize me that way. When I went to the Mt. Hood sundance in Oregon to help butcher and cook a buffalo, one of the singers from Porcupine, SD, recognized me across the arbor and called out, “Hey, Selo-taichu, bring me some coffee!”

I suppose I will always be known by this name. But I learned that this is an honorable role. It means that I will honor the elderly, bring them coffee, feed them, fix them a place to sleep, make them feel welcome.

My second Indian name was Wiyan Tanka or Big Boss Woman, but I didn’t know it for awhile. I heard the relatives talking in Lakota about this bad, bossy person, but it took me awhile to realize they were talking about me!

It’s true, I had all the ideas, all the plans and projects, all the enthusiasm, and all the money, but I was sure that I knew just what to do to make things better.

After I discovered this was my name, I learned to shut up and listen, wait to see what was really needed, and then quietly help someone else do it.

My third Indian name was Watoto Wiyan, or Greeny-greeny Woman. I became famous across the reservation for serving greeny-greenies at feasts, giveaways, ceremonies, and even at my own table.

I was given this name by a well-known medicine man, Leonard Crow Dog, when I served him peas. They were really nice peas; I’d grown them myself, just picked them, and they were so tiny and sweet I didn’t even cook them.

I just put them in a bowl in front of him as a delicacy. After all, I liked them, the kids liked them.

But when Leonard saw them, he got a funny look on his face and said, “What’s this? You trying to poison me or something, feeding me little green poison pills?”

From this I learned to feed traditional medicine men traditional Indian foods, and to continue serving salads to anyone who would eat them.

My fourth Indian name was Pispiza Wiyan, or Prairie Dog Woman. This was a joking name, because by this time I’d gotten a little rounder and fatter.

And also, we had buried our trailer into the earthen side of a hill to make it warmer in winter and cooler in summer, so when people would come to visit, I would emerge from my hole and greet people, “Hello! Come on in and have some coffee!”

From this I learned that I could live almost anywhere with almost anything, eat almost anything. In other words, I could adapt and survive.

My fifth Indian name was Sipsipila Wiyan, or Leaping in the Air Woman. This was given to me by Charlotte Black Elk at a South Dakota History Conference.

We were sitting around a table listening to a keynote speaker say some untrue things about the Sioux land claim to the sacred Black Hills, Paha Sapa. It got so bad that some of our Lakota people left the room — quietly.

But I, I am told, stood up, and no — I did not pound the table with my shoe — but apparently I did pound the table with a salt shaker, interrupt the speaker, and correct some of the factual errors.

I also got written up in a Lakota Times editorial, and became famous across the reservation for leaping in the air.

I’m glad I did speak out against lies and injustice, and was successful in getting the next year’s keynote speaker to be a Lakota who refuted that speech and championed the Black Hills Land Claim.

My sixth Indian name, Chante Tanka Wiyan, or Brave-Hearted Woman, came to me after an ordeal. A man on dope burst into my classroom and threatened to kill one of my students.

He was 6’5″, had a knife in one hand and a sawed-off shotgun in the other, wearing what I later found out to be brass knuckles.

Since I don’t allow anyone to ruin my classes, I just took his belt buckle, right in front of my nose, and backed him slowly but firmly toward the door.

I said, “Not in my class! If you want to kill somebody, you’ll have to wait outside until we’re done.”

So he did. He smashed all the pickups in the parking lot, but he did not kill my student.

From this I learned we must face danger when it comes, even if our knees shake so much that afterwards we can’t shift the clutch to drive home.

My last Indian name, the one that means the most to me, is Pte Wakan Wiyan, or Sacred Buffalo Woman.

I spent eleven years trying to raise a sacred herd of buffalo, trying to feed them and keep them alive, keep them inside the fenced pasture, keep them from being poached, keep them to be used for sacred purposes, like honoring feasts, memorial dinners, and sundances.

When I heard myself called this name, I knew I finally had a name worth keeping — one that meant that I was loved, honored, and respected for myself alone.

I was no longer just Selo Taichu, a husband’s old lady, but I had earned a truly sacred name.

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