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What Are The Most Common Native American Surnames?

In tracing one’s family history, many people look to their surname and its origins for clues. However, not all cultures will have the same naming conventions. Those of Native American descent need to search a little farther, as Native American tribes do not have surnames as we know them.

A name had deep significance and power in American Indian culture, regardless of the nation. While there are clan names, there are also the two special names that many tribe members have. These names are chosen for the qualities of their bearer. 

Some Native American families have been able to keep these naming traditions, while others have surnames that come from other parts of the world. Keep reading to learn more about how this happened, and what are the most common Native American last names today.

How Native American Naming Conventions Changed

Traditionally, the naming conventions of America’s indigenous peoples were rooted in nature. There was a strong belief that the names chosen for children would greatly affect their personalities and traits. Because of this, some names would be quite complex. This was to allow for a proper, specific description of an attribute that the person bearing the name also had.

What’s interesting about Native American names is that they do not have surnames as traditionally used in European or American conventions. Instead, a family would assign a son or daughter two names at birth. While the first name was the one by which they would commonly be addressed, the second was kept secret.

Many Native American tribes believed that knowing the sacred second name of a person gave you magic power over them. Because of this, these sacred names were hidden to keep people from gaining control over the bearer.

Most Common Native American Surnames

Common Native American Surnames

Because of the difficulty that many English speakers had with pronouncing the letters in traditional American Indian names, some tribes took on English last names for government records. Others have chosen to keep both their traditional names and their Anglicized names.

Some of these names were assigned to their ancestors by the federal government, through the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. This was to give them more Western-sounding names that were far less complex for Americans to pronounce, compared to their names in their native languages.

Some of these recorded surnames may be traditional European names, but others are simply the English words for the places that a specific tribe calls home. Others describe the kind of work that is done by the Native Americans who adopted it as a surname, such as “Maize” for corn pickers.

Regardless of which tribe they belong to, there are many Native Americans who have these surnames.

Here are examples of the most common surnames for Native Americans that are not in their native language.

  • Alberty: This is a variation of “Alberti”, a surname of a family that lived in America at the beginning of the 1920s.
  • Bernard or Bernhard: This Germanic name means “as strong and as brave as a bear”. Cornfield: This was primarily taken by those who worked in cornfields.
  • Denton: This name means “one from the town in the valley”. Eubank: An old Anglo-Saxon name taken from the phrase “yew-bank”, which meant someone who lived near yew trees.
  • Gaylord: A name that means “one with high spirits”.
  • Holt: This Old English surname’s meaning is “a small wood or grove”.
  • Paddock: This was primarily taken by those who worked with or had small enclosures for animals.
  • Sandoval: A common last name in South America, this Hispanic name is formed by the Latin words “saltus” (grove) and “novalis” (newly cleared land).
Most Common Native American Surnames

Common Cherokee Nation Surnames

The Cherokee are a group of indigenous people in America’s Southeastern Woodlands. Cherokee ancestral homelands are located in parts of North and South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama. With over 300,000 tribe members, the Cherokee Nation is one of the largest federally recognized tribes in America. Several groups also claim descent from the Cherokee, and over 819,000 people have informed the U.S. Census that they have Cherokee ancestry.

While some Cherokee descendants may have other surnames that sound English, there are many that still proudly use their ancestors’ traditional surnames in official records.

Here are the most common Cherokee surnames.

  • Awiakta
  • Catawnee
  • Colagnee
  • Culstee
  • Ghigau
  • Kanoska
  • Lisenbe
  • Nelowie
  • Onelasa
  • Sequoyah
  • Sullicooie
  • Tesarkee
  • Watike
  • Yargee

Common Navajo Last Names

In terms of landmass and enrolled tribe members, this group is the biggest of all the Native American nations. A group that hails from the U.S. Southwest, the Navajo Nation has nearly 400,000 enrolled tribal members. It also has the largest reservation in the country, spanning 27,000 square miles that cover parts of Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona.

These are some of the most common Navajo last names. The pronunciation may differ greatly from the name’s spelling, so consult online resources and tribe records to find out how to say these names correctly.

  • Acothley: This name means “cowboy”.
  • Adakai: This name means “gambling hands” and is taken from “adishka”, which means “to play cards”.
  • Begay: A name that comes from the Navajo word “bite”, which means “his or her son”. This last name was commonly adopted for official records.
  • Bylilly: This surname’s meaning comes from its two syllables, “ba” (or “for him”) and “alilee” (or “magic power”).
  • Claw: This name means “left-handed”.
  • Hatahle: A Navajo word that means “medicine man”.
  • Lapahie: This name means “grey”.
  • Tabaaha: A name which means “shore” or “beach”.
  • Todicheene: This is Navajo for “bitter water people”.
  • Tsinajinnie: This is an established Navajo clan designation, referring to the “black-streak clan”.

Ancient Native American Surnames

While not as common as tribe-specific last names, these deeply traditional Native American surnames have very fascinating stories.

Here are some traditional Native American last names and their meanings.

  • Arrow: This name indicates that the bearer may be descended from hunters.
  • Blackrock: This surname is associated with Native American families that hail from areas known for black rocks.
  • Swiftwater: This name was used by Native American families that reside near swift sources of water like rivers.
  • Thunderhawk: This surname indicates descent from someone who holds the combined power of thunder and a fierce hawk.

Common Apache Last Names

The Apache are a group of Southwestern tribes that are culturally related. The Apache are cousins of the Navajo Nation, and their homelands are known as the Apacheria. These areas include parts of North Mexico, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and Colorado. Today, the Apache have reservations in Arizona and New Mexico.

The Apache Nations have distinct languages and cultures. These are some of the most common Apache last names found in government records. To learn more about their history and significance, you will have to dig a little deeper into the tribe that commonly bears this name.

  • Altaha
  • Chatto
  • Chino
  • Dosela
  • Goseyun
  • Mescal
  • Shanta
  • Tessay

Learn More About The History Of Native American Last Names

Many Native American tribes have been able to keep their names in their own language. Many others have Anglicized names on government records. Whatever name each family has chosen to bear, each one reflects the struggles, journeys, and traditions of their ancestors.

You may have recognized your last name here, or have gotten inspired to look up your own name’s history and site of origin. But if you want to do more research into your heritage, you should look through your old family photos!

Have your old photographs restored by a professional photo studio like Image Restoration Center. Once restored and colorized, you can share them with your relatives to find out more about your family. Restored photos are a great way to find out more family stories and get in touch with your roots!

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