The origin of the names for Southwestern Indian tribes is an interesting and challenging field of study. In almost every case, we have to rely on guesswork when it comes to the source of these names and their original meaning. “Navajo” furnishes a good example.

One early explanation suggested that the name may have derived from the Spanish word “navaja,” meaning a large folding knife, often referred to as a peasant knife. Supposedly, warriors of the tribe long ago carried great stone knives.

I’ve been told that in the tribal language there exists the word “navajo,” meaning pool or small lake, but I haven’t verified it. In any case, Navajos, in their own tongue, call themselves the Diné, which means “the people,” or more specifically “the Earth people.”

The first written use of the name Navajo dates to 1630, when Fray Alonso de Benavides referred to the Apaches de Navajó in his famous Memorial to the Spanish King. The Navajo people at that time still were linked so closely to their cousins, the Apaches, that the Spaniards regarded them merely as a branch of that tribe.

Father Benavides tells us that Navajó, pronounced with an accent on the o, was a Tewa Pueblo word meaning “great planted fields.” Since the Apaches de Navajó once occupied abandoned farmlands of the Tewa west of the Rio Grande, it seems likely that Tewas spoke of them as the Apaches who live on “the great planted fields” (that is, the Navajó).

By the middle colonial years, they had emerged as a distinct tribe from the Apaches and were now simply called Navajo by the Spaniards. From Spanish, the name passed into English.

In the late 1800s, the Bureau of American Ethnology in Washington decided to change the spelling to Navaho because it was easier for most people to pronounce. Thereafter, it used that form in all of its government reports and bulletins, and many others went along. Today, the traditional spelling, Navajo, is preferred.

In the 1990s, then-Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah campaigned to abandon the use of Navajo and replace it with Diné. He said that bringing back the native name would promote ethnic pride and cultural identity; however, the Tribal Council voted down the idea.

The Papago of southern Arizona were more successful in adopting a name change. The original meaning of the word “Papago” is unknown, but the Spaniards first knew them by that term.

In recent times, the tribe decided it wanted to be called the Tohono O’Odham, which is the Indians’ own name for themselves in their native language. One trouble with that is the correct pronunciation of Tohono O’Odham is very difficult for an English speaker to get. I know because I’ve tried, with the help of a native speaker.

Another problem in abolishing usage of Papago or Navajo is that both words have been around for several hundred years and now are understood universally as the name for each tribe. And, of course, in the historical literature, the terms occur frequently.

Today, whenever I refer to the Tohono O’Odham in writing, I feel compelled to pause and add in parenthesis, “the people who used to be called Papago.” What a nuisance!

In theory, any group can call itself whatever it pleases. But the Papago and Navajo have always done that when speaking their own languages. The question becomes: Do they have a right to decide what name will be used for them in English?

In reality, many current tribal names were first learned by Europeans from tribes’ hostile neighbors, and they were apt to be uncomplimentary. The word “Apache,” for instance, is thought to have come from an old Zuni term signifying “enemy,” which obviously has a negative connotation.

Nevertheless, that original connotation has been lost and forgotten, so it can scarcely provide justification or sanction for a modern name change, with all the confusion that inevitably results.

All the controversy over ethnic names and over the very word Indian (which historically is perfectly proper) has arisen with the mushrooming of hypersensitivity.

Notwithstanding, the issue raises interesting questions that are grounded in the complex story that makes up New Mexico’s past. From such controversies, new perspectives often emerge.

Now in semi-retirement, author Marc Simmons wrote a weekly history column for more than 35 years. The New Mexican is publishing reprints from among the more than 1,800 columns he produced during his career.