By Angela Bellegarde, Our Kids Network Indigenous Lead
Have you ever thought about the name you were given? Is there a story behind how you came to have your name? What about the children, youth, and families you work with? Do you think about the significance of their names? For many Indigenous people, our naming story is one of the most important stories that form our identity. Indeed, how we receive our name is important to everyone. For many Indigenous people, the story of how we received our name and what our name means is very important to our individual identity and shapes our place in the world. Indeed, how we all receive our name is important to every person, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.
Some of you may think I am referring to my traditional Indigenous name – the name I received as an adult in sacred ceremony. I choose to not share my traditional name widely, but some Indigenous people prefer to be known by their Indigenous name. This choice is significant to them, to their family, and to their community. Many Indigenous people also indicate the name of their people, such as Anishnaabeg or Cree, when introducing themselves. Pay attention when you hear them pronounce their Indigenous name, the name of their people, and their First Nation. They are sharing an important part of who they are with you. Learn how to pronounce these names properly. Ask them to repeat their name if you need to. Say it out loud. Be courageous and take the step to learn.
It’s important to note that not all Indigenous people have been honored with their Indigenous name. Colonialism has interfered with this traditional practice. Some of us were taken from our communities and families and we are still searching for who we are.
We often indicate the name of our First Nation in our introductions. You will hear me say that I am a band member of Peepeekisis Cree First Nation. There is a lot of Canadian Indigenous history wrapped up in those four words. I recently met with a community partner who used her historical knowledge of my reserve to set the tone of our meeting. It was wonderful. Have you thought this way about the name of your workplace, home, and community? Not the traditional Indigenous name but the current name being used? What does “Halton” mean to you?
Reclaiming our names
The government changed our names at the time of treaty signing, and religious and government-appointed administrators at residential schools Christianized our names. This is well documented. In fact, Call to Action number 17 addresses these facts by calling on the government to waive administrative costs for those who want to reclaim their names. Think about this for a moment. What would you do? This is the dilemma that my uncles and aunties are contemplating now. Their current names have come to mean just as much to them as the traditional names that were changed.
Nicknames and movie stars
The importance of nicknames for Indigenous people cannot be understated. For some Indigenous people, a nickname is the only name they are known by. When people ask who my father was, I must identify him by his nickname and his given name.
I love the moment of realization when I meet someone who knew my father by his nickname. It means they knew him when he was young, and as a player on the notorious Lebret Indians hockey team. In those days, nicknames meant you belonged to the team, even if it was “Team Residential School”. Having a nickname still means that you are accepted and acknowledged by your peers and, to us, are part of a family within an oppressive system.
Let me name drop a little and tell you about the time I met Hollywood actor, the late Gordon Tootoosis at a powwow my father and I attended. I was star struck as he greeted my dad with a thundering “Jojo!”, my father’s nickname. Gordon knew Brad Pitt, for heaven’s sake, but I was in awe of his many references to our people. “Skin is here. Did you see Skin? I heard Cannonball wasn’t well. Have you heard anything?” he queried. Skin? Cannonball? Who were these people and how did they get those names? Their nicknames were their stories and I cherished the times when my dad shared these moments of our history with me. These stories also provided insight into his time at residential school, something he didn’t speak much about.
More than just a name
The name on my birth certificate is the name I’m writing about today. There is a history to my name that tells you where I’m from, who my people are, and my place in this world. When meeting other Indigenous people for the first time, our names will be the starting point for conversation.
When I lived in Alberta, people knew that I was from Saskatchewan because of my last name. “Bellegarde. A cousin from next door over, eh?” In turn, I know an Indigenous person from Alberta by their usually, very descriptive last names given to them by government agents: Weaseltallow, Littlebear, Shotonbothsides…Alberta Indigenous people for sure.
My children know their name stories and we talk about them frequently. I have taught them that when they are asked their name, they are to say it loud and clear. This is meaningful and is a part of Canada’s history. All our names are.
I encourage you to spend some time thinking about your name. What is its origin story? What about the names of your clients? Have they anglicized their names because it’s easier to apply for employment or be accepted in the community? Were they given a different name at birth than the one they have now? What does that mean to them? Knowing a person’s name is an opportunity to learn about them and who they are. Use your clients’ names as often as possible when meeting together. This acknowledges their whole being.
Chelsea Vowel (BEd, LLB) is a Métis writer and educator from Lac Ste. Anne, Alta., currently doing her graduate studies in Edmonton. Mother to six girls, she co-hosts the Indigenous feminist sci-fi podcast Métis in Space and is the author of Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada.
OKN resources to increase Indigenous literacy.