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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.”
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.”
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.
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).3