Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: The Naming Ceremony

Aug 30, 2018

Commentator Scott Thybony had the honor recently of attending a Hopi baby naming ceremony. His good friend, tribal judge Delfred Leslie, had a new granddaughter and wanted Scott to come out to First Mesa for the dawn ceremony. He told Scott to be prepared to offer a name for the baby, as tradition expects of all guests. In this month’s Canyon Commentary, Scott talks about ancestors, the mixing of traditions, and the cultural mosaic of the Colorado Plateau.

The "Dawn Cloud" that inspired Scott Thybony's contribution to the Hopi baby naming ceremony
Credit Scott Thybony


A dawn ceremony at Hopi, I’m learning, means getting up at 3:00 in the morning.  My friend Delfred Leslie has invited me to the naming ceremony for his granddaughter.  Early in the morning we pull into a house below First Mesa where his daughter Marissa and her baby have been in seclusion.  They were purposely brought from the hospital at night and kept in a darkened room for twenty days. 

“The twenty-day ceremony,” the tribal judge tells me, “is to prepare the newborn to enter the world, this world.  A newborn needs to be given time to adjust to simple things such as light, noise, sounds, the temperature change.  It’s intended to closely resemble the child in the womb.  When the mother and child are inside the house, it’s dark in there.  No loud noise, no shouting.  The child gets acclimated to the outside world.”

The event begins with the washing of the mother’s hair and the baby’s first bath.  Next, those who have crowded into the room come forward one-by-one to present gifts to the mother.  Most of the women have quilted baby blankets, and the pile keeps growing higher.  And each person gives the baby a name. Her primary name, Tsewala Aiyo, is given for her father’s clan, Parrot/Katsina. The names given always connect to their Hopi clans, Delfred says.  “They will expect you to give a name, too.” 

My only claim to a clan is through my grandmother, a MacLeod.  Before naming the baby, I mention my Scottish clan, and hearing “Cloud” they give a murmur of approval.  And I tell Marissa about recently driving north on Highway 89 at daybreak, heading toward a beautiful cloud.  “I’ll call her, Dawn Cloud.”

At dawn the mother carries the baby outside for the first time.  Wrapped in a Hopi blanket, she walks to the family shrine behind the house and presents the baby to the rising sun.  I watch from a distance, standing next to the piki house with Delfred.  He tells me, “She will ask the blessing of the Sun to carry this life forward and protect her from harm.”

He now climbs the back steps with his prayer corn carried in a pouch beaded with an American flag.  In a strong voice he calls out in Hopi, addressing Father Sun, Uncle Morning Star, and the Moon.  He announces the arrival of the newborn, giving the child’s clan and family, and asks all who have gathered to bless her.  Then he calls out each name given to the baby.  He announces thirty-one names in Hopi and one in English.

“The prayers to the Sun, Morning Star, the Moon, and to Hopi deities,” Delfred tells me, “include requests for a long, fruitful life without sorrow.  They also include a request for a healthy, strong life and protection from harm.  And they ask that she will be a calm, passionate, wise, hard working, and caring woman.  And importantly,” he adds, “the prayers are a request she be given the strength to make the right choices in life.”  Upon finishing all are invited inside to greet the newborn and share her first meal. 

Several days later I hear from the Hopi mesas.  “Thanks for making our grandchild strong and beautiful,” Delfred says.  “Dawn Cloud is a very special and beautiful name, especially knowing that it came to us from you through your grandmother.  Always call her by the name you have given her.”  And he finishes with a simple thanks in Hopi, “ Kwa kwai.”