In an iconic scene from Pulp Fiction, Butch Coolidge tells the Cab Driver Esmeralda Villalobos, “I’m American, honey. Our names don’t mean shit.”
But that wasn’t always the case in the Americas. Indigenous names, clan names, ancestral names, and traditional names go back to time immemorial. In Canada we can trace the origins of Indigenous people carrying Christian names to the Indian Act. Naming policies designed for the assimilation process gave Indian Agents the power to completely rename Indigenous families. Their original names were rarely if ever documented.
Traditional names relate back to the carrier in more meaningful ways than western names like Bill or Jane ever could. A traditional name is more for the soul than for the body. In every case, a traditional name tells a story about the person who carries it and the path they will walk.
The ways these names are received represent one of the greatest differences between Nations. In some traditions, names are given through ceremony and sometimes only used in that context, while others like mine from the Longhouse tradition, are given by clan mothers.
My Mohawk name Kanatakeron means between two towns. My clan mother chose it because my parents come from Nations who were traditional enemies, the Mohawk and Mi’kmaq. The way this name has defined and redefined my character throughout my life continues to astonish me.
When I was younger, growing up in the city, I always felt caught between western and Indigenous culture. I now live in Montreal, which is the metropolitan mid-point between my mom’s community, Listuguj, and my Dad’s community, Akwesasne.
In other traditions, Elders and Grandparents can act as name-givers. Alexa Manuel, Syilx from the Nicola Valley in BC, was named c'aʔpqʷic'yaʔ by her paternal Grandmother, Laura Manuel. “Simplified it could be pronounced like ‘tsa-pwee-tsyia,’” said Alexa. “It’s Nsyilxcn in the Okanagan language and in English it's a plant known as the Western Stickseed.”
“My namesake plant has really small flowers, which are pretty and delicate, but they also have small seed pods that stick to people. They're those little burrs that get stuck on your socks if you're walking in the bush. My gran said that I was a small and sensitive girl, and I was also really clingy to my mom,” explained Lex. “When I outgrew this clinginess, I initially considered changing my name. But as I got to know myself better, I realized it still applied. I've been described as quiet and nice, but also very outspoken and stubborn. So I kept the name, and even had images of the plants tattooed on me last year.”
For others, reclaiming their spirit name can be an act of decolonization as well as a spiritual education. Scott Benesiinaabandan is a survivor of the 60’s scoop. “Because of being moved around to different foster homes, my last name changed a number of times,” said Benesiinaabandan. “Because of that I didn’t put much importance on a name.”
Benesiinaabandan was 22 when he got his spirit name through ceremony. “Stan Williams gave me a story about a dream that he had when my name came to him,” said Benesiinaabandan. “My spirit name is Benesii, which means Thunderbird. But Stan said the Thunderbird that came to him wasn’t in physical form, it was in spirit-dream form.”
In 2010 Benesiinaabandan did a residency in Ireland. “In Ireland they’ve been reclaiming their Gaelic names for decades as a political act and to take back the cultural importance of names. These Gaelic guys kept on telling me my Anglicized name was my slave name.”
“That motivated me to think about what I was going to change my name back to. I started thinking about what Stan had told me about his dream,” said Benesiinaabandan. “Benesiinaabandan means: Thunderbird looking like in dreams. So I changed my last name back to Benesiinaabandan in honor of my spirit name and Stan.”
“There are teachings that come with your name. You learn about yourself through it and it’s a life long learning process about what that name is going to mean to you,” said Benesiinaabandan. “There’s power in that name and being connected to the process of earning and living it.”
The instinct to name things in the outside world is a universal impulse, and it greatly informs a culture’s worldview. This is especially significant in an Indigenous context. The fact that some Indigenous languages are genderless and instead rely on animism to describe the world is very significant. If you can look at something like a river, and see it as a living part of your world, then you’re more likely to protect it. The colonial view, however, has seen the land as a financial resource to be exploited. With this in mind, it's no wonder why they have continuously tried to eradicate our traditional names and languages in the hope that we will forget our responsibilities as keepers of the land.
Today, as industry tries to push through more and more pipelines, it's essential that we both remember and honour our names - because they tell us who we really are, and what our purpose is on this earth.
Daniel Isaac is a Mi’kmaq and Mohawk writer born in Ottawa, raised in Vancouver, and living in Montreal. He holds a BA in creative writing from Concordia University, works as a freelance journalist, and is published regularly in The Nation Magazine.