Reclaiming Ourselves One Name at a Time

Posted by on Jan 23, 2013 in Opinion


First Nations, Ojibway, Blackfoot, Indian, Aboriginal, Treaty, Halfbreed, Cree, Status Indian are all fairly familiar English words but none of them are the names by which we, the various Indigenous Peoples, called ourselves in our own languages.

By contrast how many Canadians have heard these names: Nehiyaw, Nehiyawak, Otipemisiwak and Apeetogosan? Yet, these are who I am because these are the names my grandparents used to describe and call ourselves.  Even “Metis” is not the name people called themselves in the language in Manitou Sakhahigan. The community where my dad was born and raised in. And even that place is not known by its original name but by it’s English/French name “Lac Ste. Anne.”

Good Land (Detail)Artwork by Christi Belcourt

Good Land (Detail)
Artwork by Christi Belcourt

The issue of naming places in Canada is complex. Some would argue that Canada reflects its Indigenous roots because there are many place names which are derived from the original Indigenous languages. Even though the origins and meanings of those names have all been lost to the history that Canadians tell to one another about Canada. Toronto is a case in point.

I would argue that most Canadians are quite comfortable, and even comforted, by the names of the places they call home that are Indigenous in origin – but only to a point. As long as they are in name only and don’t come with the burden of acknowledging Canada’s past colonialist history and the erasure of Indigenous ownership of lands.

Canadians seem to hold some quaint and romanticized notion that Canada was founded by the English and French, and Indigenous Peoples’ contributions to the country are nothing more than providing some names or assisting in the war of 1812. Regardless, the renaming of lakes, rivers or areas of land from existing Indigenous names into English or other European names is widely recognized by those who have knowledge deeper than a puddle, as a colonialist tool that was used extensively in the claiming of Indigenous lands throughout North, Central and South America.

As famed University of California geographer Bernard Nietschmann put it, “More Indigenous territory has been claimed by maps than by guns, and more Indigenous territory can be reclaimed and defended by maps than by guns.”

Whether intentioned or not by the people who did the renaming, the collective effect on the Canadian psyche has been one of the perpetuation of the myth that there were vast empty territories, identified by Europeans as ‘Terra Nullius’, that were there for the taking. Equally damaging is the belief that Indigenous Peoples were immigrants to North America like Europeans and therefore Indigenous ownership over the lands was somehow only temporary until Europeans arrived.  Those myths are at the heart of the on-going conflicts that continue today over land.

It’s clear to me the educational system has failed Canadians as much as it’s failed us. Sadly, the history Canadians tell to one another about Canada is not the history Indigenous people share with one another about this land. Canadian history as it is written by Canadians is so incomplete and devoid of Indigenous history and knowledge, that it is causing many Indigenous people to think that a large portion of Canadians are kind of, well, sorry to say this – dumb. Not dumb generally, just behind the curve I’ll say when it comes to Indigenous Peoples, the issues, the history and discussing ideas on how to move forward. And I recognize it is not Canadians’ fault if they don’t seem up to speed on our issues. How can we expect them to know if they aren’t being taught?

Renaming the Person

The CBC reported yesterday that there is a girl in Iceland who is simply listed as “girl” on her birth certificate because the name she was given by her parents does not conform to one of the 1,800 or so pre-approved legal names for girls in her country. A CBC on-line poll asked Canadians if they agree with Iceland’s “official name list.” Not surprisingly, about 60% disagree.

Coincidentally, at the same time as I was listening to the news, my partner asked me to call the Ontario Government office located in Thunder Bay to ask a question about him legally changing his name. My partner is Anishinaabe. Like so many Indigenous people in Canada, the name on his birth certificate and on his I.D. is in English.

He has always disliked his surname “White” – not because of anything to do with the word.  But because he said it has never felt like his. Much like the renaming of places into English names in his traditional territory of the Treaty 3 region, his surname was also imposed on his family.  His great-grandfather’s name was Waabshkii’ogin (pronounced Waab-shkee-o-gun).  That was his name.  One name.  Not a first and last name.  Just one name.  Translated from Anishinaabemowin it means “White Feather.”

A Work in Progress (detail)Artist Christi Belcourt

A Work in Progress (detail)
Artist Christi Belcourt

Perhaps his great-grandfather did have other names, names that were given to him at different times during his life. But the name that stuck as the family name was “White” because, as the story in his family goes, it so happened Waabshkii’ogin was the name he had at the time of Treaty 3. Apparently the person doing the registry was instructed to list the names in English and not being a fluent in Anishinaabemowin, the name was shortened to “White” on the official record.

According to the Department of Aborignal Affairs (AANDC), “As early as 1850, the colonial government in British North America began to keep and maintain records to identify individual Indians and the bands to which they belonged. These records helped agents of the Crown to determine which people were eligible for treaty and interest benefits under specific treaties.” Later in 1951, those lists officially became the “Indian Registry.”

It further states: “Under the Indian Act, the Indian Registrar—an employee of AANDC—is responsible for maintaining the Indian Register. The Registrar is the sole authority for determining which names will be added, deleted or omitted from the Register.”

Despite the fact that registration for “Indians” is done in Ottawa, legal name changes are the jurisdiction of the provinces. So on the phone to Thunder Bay, I tried to explain to the government employee that my partner wishes to change his name to one name and I was asking if this is possible.  She asked why. I told her it was because in his culture the people traditionally only had one name. She asked which culture. I replied “Ojibway” and “First Nations”. To which she replied, “Which country is that from?”  I kid you not. Thunder Bay is a city where it is estimated one in five residents is Indigenous, the majority being “Ojibway.” The level of educating Indigenous people have to do constantly with the non-Indigenous population never ceases to astound me.

I found out also that legally a name in Canada must contain a “first and last name” therefore his attempt to reclaim a family name like “Waabshkii’ogin” and return to the traditional way of naming in his community, which is to have first names but not last names is outlawed in Canada.  Suddenly Iceland’s policies don’t seem all that different.

How can we as Indigenous peoples begin to reclaim our own names and discard our colonialist past if our names are not even considered legally possible unless they conform to the Eurocentric version of what constitutes a person’s name and identity?

My own attempts at reclaiming are done one name and one word at a time. I always use Biidewe’anikwetok, the Anishinaabe name I was given in ceremony to introduce myself before English. My daughter was named Aazhaabikqwe by her auntie, and then she was given a second name, Shpegiizhigok, by the Shaking Tent. I’m trying as hard as I can to learn the language.

One by one, I am trying to learn the original names of places around me and speak their names out into words. Awakening into sounds and songs my respect for the places of my ancestors and the sacred ground I walk on.

– Biidewe’anikwetok

Footnote: In Alberta Manitou Sakhahigan was renamed to Lac Ste. Anne by a priest in 1844 when he mistakenly thought the name translated meant “devil lake.” In the case of Manitou Sakhahigan, renaming went hand in hand with the gradual demonizing of traditional ceremonial and land based practices such as natural medicines and the christianization of the Peoples. During that period and the many years that followed, subsequent generations of my ancestors began to lose the traditional knowledge that went hand in hand with their lands. Christianity ensured that lands that were once considered sacred, became something to be dominated. Animals that were considered relatives, became commodities.

For further reading on original place names please read my post on Mapping Roots


Follow Christi on Twitter: @christibelcourt

Christi Belcourt is a visual artist with a deep respect for the traditions and knowledge of her people.  The majority of her work explores and celebrates the beauty of the natural world.  Author of Medicines To Help Us (Gabriel Dumont Institute, 2007), Beadwork (Ningwakwe Learning Press, 2010). Her work can be found in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Canada, the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Gabriel Dumont Institute (Saskatoon), and the Indian and Inuit Art Collection (Hull).


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  1. Royce Freeman
    January 23, 2013

    Wonderful article and words of strength. If you have the time, check out the book Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640 by Patricia Seed. There are some good details of colonial methodology and renaming is a key part of these methods. There is also a linguistic book that shows an example of a dictionary of Native American place names used today, but it would be incredible to find work that shows a collective renaming and/or organization of traditional Native names for our lands.

    Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640
    By Patricia Seed

    Native American Placenames of the United States
    By William Bright

  2. Peter Hudyman
    January 23, 2013

    I am learning…miigwetch

  3. nellymills
    January 23, 2013

    Thank you for this. Much good work can be done from this point. We have so much to learn! We live in exciting times. It is not our fault – the education sytems failed us. Think of other Anglicized (colonization) names: Peking=Beijing, Rome=Roma, Naples=Napoli. This is disrespectful. We must use the proper names for places, and people. This is a sweet awakening. “more land was conquered by maps than by guns” <>. Grade 1 = FIX THIS.

  4. Effie Carson
    January 23, 2013

    Thank you, Biidewe’anikwetok, for the information. You are a very good writer.

    As a teacher in Toronto, I have had the privilege to teach many new Canadians. I always made it a point to learn the proper pronunciation of their (sometimes onerous names). I always discouraged them from letting students and teachers to anglify their names. It raises my ire to hear students being paged by the office and hearing their names mangle by whomever was on the P.A. Isn’t it just polite to learn someone’s name?

  5. Judith Pierce Martin
    January 23, 2013

    I would like to make two points:

    1. if a person can have a first, last and numerous middle names as their “legal” name, why then cannot a person have one name? I hope Waabshkil’ogin will continue to pursue his official name change and, hopefully, take the first step in ending this discriminatory government policy.

    2. “…we must call everything we see by the name of its spirit”…because the rocks, the trees and the waters won’t know us “unless they are addressed by the names they themselves told us to call them in our dreams.” Louise Erdrich (See Mapping Routes, Perspectives of Land and Water in Ontario).

    This is the absolute crux of the matter. Waabshkii’ogin, Biidewe’anikwetok, Aazhaabikqwe, and Shpegiizhigok are the names given to your spirits – not to your flesh – and therefore are sacred and eternal. How can you know each other, or yourselves, unless you are addressed by the names given to you by the eternal presence of the Great Spirit.

    • Duke Wawia
      February 2, 2013

      i believe the spirits of the earth will here us no matter what language we use as long as our hearts are true in our intent, as they do not have ears to hear with or mouths to speak with anyhow

  6. Ozhawsko Manameg
    January 23, 2013

    Chi Miigwecth for this blog Christi, for sharing your good words.

  7. Konwennenhon
    January 24, 2013

    Great article Christi! Thank you for that refreshing perspective on Canadian education. They are not doing their own people any favours by under educating them about the history of the Indigenous People. I find there is growing awareness of that fact here and there. More articles like this will help wake people up. Education is such an important issue, and we are at a time when we can really challenge the institutions for change.

    I’m so happy to hear you’re carrying on with learning the language, at times it gets heavy, but it does also give people a lot of strength. 🙂 And each word you learn is another word you have preserved for the next generation.

    • Konwennenhon
      January 24, 2013

      Also, you’re paintings are awesome! I love them!

  8. Daniel Gilbeau
    January 24, 2013

    Thank you so much Christi for sharing this story. Hopefully things will continue to change for the better and others will be less ignorant when they read about the real history of this land.


  9. Lise Ruthardt
    January 25, 2013

    In keeping with what’s in a name…..while I know that the following words are English, can you tell me the difference between a tribe and a band?

    Also, is there a timeline somewhere (other than taking a university course) that would identify the legislations and policies of the government and their impact on aboriginal people.

    I am trying to educate myself so that I can discuss with people intelligently.

    For example, I heard that the Indian Act still prohibits Aboriginal people from selling or giving goods from the reserves (in the INM teleconference). This is an important fact that is unknown but really has an impact.

    By the way I really liked that idea of using this by giving coffee and information as a protest.

    Keep up the good work. I am with you in spirit.

    • Christi Belcourt
      January 26, 2013

      Hi Lise, thanks for your openness to learn and discuss things. There is a massive amount of information and you could pretty much start anywhere.I’m waiting for a friend of mine to give me a suggested reading list which I will post when I get it, but in the meantime I can recommend Thomas Kings “An Inconvenient Indian” as a recently released book that could help. Its available in all the major book stores now. The section of the Indian Act prohibiting the sale, trade, gifting of certain items by band members in AB, SK, & MB to non-band members is a section in the Indian Act. You can go on the Justice Department website and read the Indian Act if you can get through it without falling asleep – its awfully dry to read. But before you read the Indian Act I suggest reading many publications, watch youtube videos and searching out this very critical topic: Residential Schools. You see, you cannot study only the legislation and policies in isolation. If you understand the dire effects of the policies, it helps you to understand the history & policies as you read them, you can put them into context. I admire your courage to want to find out more.

  10. oshogeeshik
    January 28, 2013

    Good perspective, identity is a lifelong process, understanding the terminology is an important aspect of this process. Preferences and traditions of what and how we refer to ourselves are as diverse as people themselves. Personal, family, community and legal perspectives just adds to the mixture of terminology. Addressing the legal and political species of Indigenous people is a big job, the traditional terminology and sacred language connected to that is also an enormous task as well.

    • Christi Belcourt
      January 29, 2013

      It sure is – but if done on a personal level first with a person’s immediate area surrounding them and their own family or their own traditional names – it doesn’t seem so daunting! I love all the work being done at the community level in various places on mapping with Elders to find out original place names.

  11. Cheryl Morin
    January 29, 2013

    Thank you for your very insightful article.
    I encourage my Grade 10 students to call upon their relatives to learn the correct place names for their traditional territories and other lands used. And, to learn their family trees with the Woodland Cree names used by their ancestors.
    I make it a point to use articles written by First Nation’s and other Indigenous writers in the high school courses that I teach. I will surely be using this one in my Indigenous Studies class…even renamed the class…
    It is at times difficult to help others become aware that our true names are not the ones given to us by the various religious of the day as so many northerners have made one religion or another their way of life to the detriment of more traditional knowledge keeping. However, our actions will become a way of life if we insist that our ancestral knowledge has a place in our lives today.
    Keep up the great work!

    • Christi Belcourt
      January 29, 2013

      Thanks Cheryl. The names of places are still very much alive within the language speakers. I find this fascinating and beautiful at the same time. The value of teaching original names of places and people, as well as the pride that goes with that cannot be measured. Your class is so lucky you have them as a teacher. I wish more were like you…

  12. Dave Parker
    February 1, 2013

    What an inspiration! As in, as a poet, your devotion, to reclaiming names, takes my breath away. I’ve heard you mention this process on at least two occasions (Ryan McMahon’s town hall and the more recent Women’s Town Hall).

    It’s absolutely crucial for knowing our true history. If we don’t get the stories right, how can we know how we’ve come to be where we are? If we don’t know that, how can we govern ourselves? Settlers like me don’t know that we live alongside other nations precisely because of this. Likewise, the process of education and reconciliation is made all the more difficult.

    That a gov’t official, no less, would be ignorant of her neighboring nations, speaks volumes.

    I’ve been living in the Salish Sea, for going on 46 years now, never knowing its name until Idle No More taught me. I still don’t know the pre-contact names for the island I live on, Whidbey, named for one of Vancouver’s lieutenants. The Wikipedia entry acknowledges that several tribes were here at the time (“the Lower Skagit, Swinomish, Suquamish, Snohomish” and others unnamed), yet includes absurdities like, “On June 2 [1792], the team discovered Deception Pass.”

    The true history of this area has been hidden from me, hidden in plain site by the overwriting of original names. In my opinion, much of the incomprehensible settler ignorance is a product of this rhetorical burial alive of the area’s original inhabitants.

    Your efforts amount to a resurrection people relegated to a (false) past. I think it’s among the most powerful methods of reclaiming what’s been stolen.

    One of the things I’ve been wondering about is, just how does one steal an island the size of Vancouver or Whidbey? Or a whole continent? I stumbled upon an answer yesterday.

    Now the god of that temple was of a type known in Hawaiian as the *mo’o: which is a word meaning “lizard,” or “reptile.” But the only reptile in Hawaii is a harmless, even affectionately regarded little lizard that scurries up and down the walls of people’s houses and clings like a fly to ceilings, trapping insects with its quick tongue. The manner in which the mythological system of the islands has magnified this innocuous creature to the proportions of a greatly dangerous divine dragon supplies one of the most graphic illustrations I know of a mythological process—seldom mentioned in the textbooks of our subject but of considerable force and importance nevertheless—to which the late Dr. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy referred as *land-náma, “land naming” or “land taking.” 25 Through *land-náma, “land naming,” or “land taking,” the features of a newly entered land are assimilated by an immigrant people to its imported heritage of myth. We have already noted the case of the role of the serpent assumed by an eel. We are now considering that of the same serpent role assumed by a harmless lizard. We might also have considered the manner in which the Pilgrim Fathers and pioneers of America established their New Canaans, Nazareths, Sharons, Bethels, and Bethlehems wherever they went. The new land, and all the features of the new land, are linked back as securely as possible to the archetypes— the spiritually, psychologically, and sociologically significant archetypes—of whatever mythological system the people carry in their hearts. And through this process the land is spiritually validated, sanctified, and assimilated to the image of destiny that is the fashioning dynamism of the people’s lives. We shall have plenty of occasion, throughout the following chapters, to observe the force of this principle in the shaping of symbols. The process has now been clearly announced to us by the monster eel and the noble mo’o of the mythologies of remote Polynesia. [The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (1969 rev. ed.), by Joseph Campbell, pp. 199-200.]<<

    I'm wondering if you've ever heard of it by that name? By what names do indigenous languages refer to it? The destruction of Palestinian communities, during the imposition of Israel, is known as the Nakba. Are there indigenous names for the similar genocidal process on Turtle Island? My people think the genocide from which we benefit happened so long ago, nothing can be done about it. Your example proves them wrong. I'd be very much obliged if you could tell me.

    It has to have occurred to settler-colonialists that renaming places, literally over the heads of actual, living. breathing people, is a way of burying them alive, making them irrelevant. This is an example of what I'm always on about: the political power of myth. A people's myths set the world stage on which they play their parts. Busting false myths is absolutely crucial to setting the stage for justice to prevail.

    Your efforts amount to resurrecting people literally "written off" as dead and buried. I'm in awe of your life-giving use of words. As a Zen poet, I bow in your virtual direction.

    • Christi Belcourt
      February 2, 2013

      Thank you for your thoughtful words and ideas. You’ve raised a question to which I don’t know the answer. If I have it correctly, you’re asking if there are words in various Indigenous languages to describe a genocide, a cultural genocide, or a take-over of lands? This is a good question. Now that you’ve asked, I need to go ask some language speakers and see what they say. I thank you for your comments. When I find out, I will write here again.

  13. Duke Wawia
    February 2, 2013

    This is what bothers me about these types of articles, I believe in this whole movement, I believe that our elders should help teach the young more about some of the facts and legends concerning our history, I also believe that some are turning some aspects of this movement into a feminist agenda, but that’s another story. What bothers me is the whole language thing and names in 4 mile long words. I’m all for anybody who wants to learn what to me is an archaic dialect that has no real purpose except to make people feel good about being native.
    Personally I hear it’s part of our culture, well that is fine but let’s also be realistic, we do not need a descriptive language anymore, even english used to be longer and a more flowery tongue, in these times of digital imagery and social media the descriptive factor has changed, it’s visual now. As well I imagine if/when we become self governing and enter into business arraingements we will not be speaking ojibway or cree or whatever, the language of business worldwide is english if we like it or not. So demonizing one of our greatest tools which is an understanding of the english language and the growing knowledge of it’s use and practices as a colonial tool of oppression is just wrong.
    I for one am proud of the name I have had all my life, It is european in origin but so what, my mother is scottish, should i forget that entire half of my lineage? my grandfather is oji-dutch and a former grand chief, my grandmother is oji-norweigan and could pack a moose out of the bush and ran the family trap lines, should i forget their lineage? My Name is Byron Wawia II, my name honors both lineages, Byron which means leader for the european settlers that fell in love with my people and the ojibway Wawia which means round or circle, which all falls into character being from the bear clan.
    I guess my point is something as simple as a language does not define who i am and who i fight for, i am more then a native, i have a lifetime of experience and lessons that led me to being a strong supporter of the native issues we face today and not one of those lessons or experiences were in ojibway and i can tell you, i’m more “native” at heart then most of the supporters of Idle No More who when asked barely understand why we are fighting this fight.

    • Christi Belcourt
      February 2, 2013

      I respect your perspective and your choices. Its up to you. The language, still spoken by many thankfully, that you describe as “archaic” and “flowery” is more than simply a “descriptive” language. Languages are the vessels that hold cultural values, perspectives, ideas and philosophies that make the world rich. Thinking and speaking within the English “box” only will make the world less than. Your argument is advocating for the extinction of Indigenous languages and in fact French, Spanish and all other languages except English. I’m sure no Jewish person would agree with you advocating for the end of Hebrew which is integral to their very identity. Why should our languages be less valued? The banning of Indigenous languages from being spoken in Residential Schools in Canada was a deliberate tool used in cultural genocide, for which the Government of Canada issued an apology in 2008. That you embrace English, your name, your heritage(s) is your choice. Just as reclaiming the heritage & language that was stolen from my family by the colonial history of Canada is mine.

  14. Duke Wawia
    February 3, 2013

    I’m just saying that we should use the tools we were taught to use they are double edged after all