Legal names are given, but Native American names are earned. Gabriel Horn gives a personal account of why and how his Indian name was chosen: “By the time I graduated from college, I had already done my battles for the people. I had protested against stereotypes of Native Americans, I had fought for a Native American literature course on campus, and I had asked for participation in the United Nations. My immediate family believed that I had earned a name. The name came to my uncle, a traditional Cherokee man, who had a vision of a white deer coming to him and singing my name. He knew it was to be White Deer.
"My godmother, my uncle, and some close friends attended the Native American names ceremony. A pipe was filled with tobacco, and offered to each direction, as they called out my name. They called it out to the east, the south, the west, and the north. They called it out to the sky and to the earth. They called it out to the plants. They called it out to the animals. In other words, I was introduced to the universe as White Deer. That was my rebirth. In a sense, I was a born again Indian at that point.” Receiving a new name was a healing experience. I was now completely comfortable with my Indian identity, whereas before I felt fragmented, not totally in touch with who I was.“
Name changes can be physically as well as psychologically healing. Some time later, White Deer became ill, and a longer name was the solution: "I had gotten very sick, and was near death. A very old Ojibwa medicine man from Canada came down to Minnesota. I believe he was over 100 years old, and he didn’t speak any English. During the ceremony of healing for me, a manifestation appeared in the room. At that point, the medicine man said that the entity wanted me to also be called Autumn. I was now White Deer of Autumn. The ceremony ended, and my sickness was healed.
"The name, of course, bestows certain powers and responsibilities. The power of the deer is its awareness, its keenness, and its protective nature. The white is purity, purity of heart, mind, and words. Autumn, I was told, is a time when change is most visible. It’s a time when change is at its most powerful. And so, I was named for that season.”
Native American names can be passed down, as western names often are. The distinction is that you are not stuck with one name all your life. This represents different beliefs about human potential, says White Deer of Autumn: “Crazy Horse passed on his name to his son, who took the name Worm as he got older. So, we can pass on names, too. The idea is that you’re not stuck with the name you were given at birth. In western society, it’s almost as if you can’t change; you can’t evolve; you can’t grow. From a native perspective, your name reflects who you are. White Deer of Autumn reflects what I’ve done. But as I go on in life, I may want to let go of that and take another name. I have that right. So, naming is the ability to evolve and change in your identity. I think this is healing, both physically and emotionally.”