It’s customary to begin with introductions amongst the Sioux. Even though this is a one-sided introduction—and I’m less than an eighth Sioux—it’s as good a place as any to start: my name is Marcus Bush. At least, that’s the name on my birth certificate.
You see, it is also a tradition amongst the Sioux to receive another name upon reaching adulthood that more closely describes the character of the individual. As the giving of this name represents passing into adulthood, it is traditionally accompanied by a ceremony called a “name giving.” I was given a name that, translated, means “Earth Paint,” signifying my passion for art, and ceramics in particular.
Fast forward about eight years. I get a frantic message from my mother, and she insists that I call her immediately. Usually I wait until I’m in the right frame of mind and have plenty of rest before I call my mother but, considering her tone, I call her back right away.
“Hey, Mom. What’s the big emergency?”
“Well, you know your father and I have been retired now for awhile.”
“And you know that we moved to Rapid City and that we started taking some courses to learn to speak Lakota?”
“Yeah?” I thought this was supposed to be some kind of emergency. Get on with it!
“Well, today we found out that it’s very important that you pronounce your name correctly.”
This is something I already knew. I’d heard a story about a priest who had insisted that he be given an “Indian” name, even going so far as to suggest that he should be called “Little Bear.” In my opinion, this is akin to asking for a cool nickname without having earned it and seems rather pretentious, but the Sioux are an accommodating people… in their own way. Like any wish granted by a genie, this priest would only get a part of what he actually asked for. He was named “Little Bear,” but because it was under duress and Lakota are unlikely to acquiesce completely, a slight change in the pronunciation made his name “Shrinking Bear,” which followed the letter of the law but also had the added benefit of an inside joke on the priest as it referred to the way his neck seemed to be engulfed by his huge priests’ collar. No, I knew better than to mispronounce my Lakota name.
Besides which, the Lakota never let go of a good joke or story, and I didn’t want to be on the wrong side of one of those. I had no intention of becoming another “Shrinking Bear.”
“It’s really important that you pronounce the ‘K’ in Maka Wase with a guttural ‘K’ rather than a hard ‘K,’ ” my mother continued. “If you don’t use the guttural ‘K’ your name means something entirely different.”
“What does it mean if you mispronounce it?”
“If you mispronounce it… it means ‘Skunk Paint.’ ”
I was simultaneously mortified and awash with relief. Having been forewarned by Shrinking Bear’s story of the inherent dangers in the use of such a nuanced language like Lakota and the importance of pronouncing things correctly, I had always made sure to pronounce my name correctly. Still, I was aghast at how perilously close I had come to becoming the laughing stock, not only of my family, but of Lakota Sioux everywhere. I couldn’t believe my good fortune at having escaped a much larger indignity.
“Wait,” she said, “there’s more.”
My heart sank.
“In order for your name to be pronounced correctly you have to put a small dot above the ‘K’ to designate it as a guttural.”
It took longer than I’d like to admit for the significance of that statement to fully sink in. Having always been proud of my Native American heritage, I had made the decision that, while my legal name would remain Marcus Bush, I would from the day of my naming sign all my artwork with my Lakota name.
You’ve probably guessed it by now: For a span of about five or six years I had signed every painting, sketch, sculpture, and pot as… Skunk Paint. No dot above that “K.”
Even if I knew the names and whereabouts of everyone I’d sold or given artwork or pottery to during that time, eventually someone would ask why I was asking to retroactively place a dot above the “K.”
Well, some time has passed, and I’ve decided that having pride in your heritage means for better or for worse.
I still joke with friends that if I ever become a famous-enough artist that someone writes my biography, there’ll have to be a chapter titled, “Maka Wase: The Skunk Paint Years.”
In all seriousness, though, if you’re reading this and you realize you have an original “Skunk Paint” collecting dust in the attic, you might think about taking better care of it from here on out. After all, now that I know the difference, I’ll be making a determined effort to sign as “Earth Paint” from now on, and “Skunk Paints” will be fewer and farther between. Extremely limited.
Only time will tell what kind of legacy I’ll leave. Skunk Paint or Earth Paint. Painter or parody. Perhaps a little of both. All I know for sure is I’ll be taking showers as often as possible from now on, and I’m thinking about making my potter’s stamp nothing more than the letter “K” with a very large dot above it.
Originally published in This Land: Summer 2016