One’s identity is wrapped within their given name. There is always lots of thought and love that goes into naming a child, with emphasis on one’s first name. In terms of one’s surname, that provides familial heritage and passing down of generational knowledge. Within indigenous culture, if one is fortunate to receive a traditional name, it carries deep cultural meaning.
Boarding schoolteachers, civil servants and various religious officials erased the given names of hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people throughout history in this country and other countries. A normal part of the residential school system assimilation was to rename indigenous children, of which this practice continued for generations.
Outside of the residential school system, traditional names were often confusing for colonial officials, who attempted to record phonetic versions in French or English that were never accurate. In other situations, indigenous people had their names translated, resulting in surnames like Littlechild or Red Crow. This action, imposing foreign, misspelled, or translated names, was systemically purposeful in nature to erase culture and identities.
These names, to include renaming after a priest, Indian agent, or Christian saints, helped impart European traditions on indigenous peoples. Families became controlled under patriarchal colonial norms even when they came from matrilineal and matriarchal cultures. In addition, assigning of patrilineal surnames assisted in the division of property among successors in a way that imitated European, not indigenous property rules.
Naming practices for Indigenous people were not eradicated, but more so driven underground, like many other traditional Indigenous practices such as pow wows and speaking one’s language. Historically, many non-indigenous people mocked, and racially insulted indigenous people getting their “Indian name”, a very sacred ceremonial practice that continues today. Please note that receiving a traditional name is a revered custom that not every indigenous person has a chance to experience.
Traditional indigenous names were barred for official registration for generations which means that many ancestors’ true names were never recorded and therefore, lost forever. This is truly impactful on tribal makeup and enrollment alone, with subsequent negative impact having to prove blood quantum or to accurately connect with a base roll member.
In Canada, governmental efforts are providing avenues for reclaiming traditional indigenous names AND adjusting legislation to provide opportunities for appropriate spelling of traditional indigenous names.
Red Basket, Dr. Kathy Froelich, an MHA elder and CREA Indigenous Culture Coordinator suggests this classroom activity to educators: “We are more alike than we are different.”
Goal: – Students will identify how they received their names at birth. Questions to be answered : Who gave them their name? Who were they named after? Does their name have a meaning?
Students will use the letters of their first, middle, or last name to create a “Name Poem”. This form of poetry is called an acrostic, the teacher will provide a model using their own name. Using any media, the students may also decorate their poem.