How Renaming Practices Have Created Loss of Cultural Identity and Intergenerational Trauma.


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Say My Name

Names carry meaning. Our names are the first gifts given to us as a child and are carefully selected. For many, our names are chosen to continue a tradition or in honour of another person. The connection between our name and character or individuality is found across cultures. Consequently, renaming practices severe the connection between language and culture as language is the origin of culture (SyndieGate Media, 20158). For descendants of First Nations and Inuit people, the renaming of our ancestors has created a loss of cultural identity and intergenerational trauma. Womxn were further affected by government policies designed to remove their Native status upon marriage. With these practices, Indigenous people were removed from controlling the tone of their narrative. By reclaiming our original languages, establishing lineage, and reinstating Indigenous names, we regain an autonomous place in Canadian culture.

The Canadian government recognizes the connection between linguistic preservation and cultural autonomy with its bilingual policies. These practices have allowed the Francophone population to sustain its distinctive cultural identity. This has allowed some Francophones to establish a lineage dating to New France. Such genealogical reconstruction is difficult for many Indigenous descendants as the connection with their languages of origin has been lost. The combination of government renaming and the further use of Residential Schools caused the loss of Indigenous languages among children and their descendants.

Consequently, the tongue of the oppressor replaced the 70 distinct Indigenous dialects of our ancestors. This language has become the unsolicited inheritance of this European influence. Where language once imposed harm, it also has the potential to heal. To learn, Ojibway would begin to heal our ancestral trauma by redefining the storyline and finding pride in our identity. We would choose the stories we tell, the narrative of the history, and what is essential to preserving our culture. The names we use are important to the continuation of our cultural identity with the nation.

In First Nations and Inuit communities, names were bestowed as part of traditions or naming ceremonies. When these cultural practices were eliminated by government or religious officials, historical and cultural knowledge was lost.  Replacing ceremony and significance with the irreverent government process meant the removal of autonomy and a shift to subjection.  These new names were chosen for the linguistic ease of the European settlers. For religious officials, renaming also implied conversion. This meant people would lose their part of their personality, cultural individuality, and religious or spiritual identity.  This aggressive act damaged the morality of Indigenous people who placed great significance on a name. For the Inuit, there is a connection between name spirit, “…, whereby the name is the soul, and the soul is the name… misuse someone’s name, you not only damage his own personal identity in the existing society but you also damage his immortal soul” (A. Barry Roberts, Eskimo Identification and Disc Numbers, A Brief History). The renaming was met with resistance as First Nation and Inuit people tried to keep their language and culture intact.  The government reacted to these efforts through fingerprinting and even creating ID tags for people to wear. In the North West Territories, the Inuit were fingerprinted and made to wear identification disks that displayed letters and numbers instead of their name. From 1935 to 1968, these disks were worn or sewn into clothing for the ease of RCMP, government officials, and health care workers. Although these disks have been removed, the colonial influence remains through the names people carry.

The Eurocentric names present in our lineage are the results of purposeful government initiatives designed to erase Indigenous cultures from the Canadian landscape. Moving beyond replacing first names, the government went to establish the use of family names. This European practise was resisted in Indigenous communities where it was viewed as unnecessary. Government officials introduced the use of surnames to reorganize First Nation and Inuit groups into a European social framework. When First Nation or Inuit men failed to create a family name, the government responded by providing one. This resulted in people having entire European names that held no significance to them or their family. In British Columbia, officers for the Ministry of Indian Affairs had the authority to impose their surname onto Aboriginal peoples. This has resulted in genetically unrelated people sharing a surname. Subsequently, this surname carries the weight of colonial indoctrination. The combined renaming and the introduction of surnames as complicated lineage lines.  These records often misspell names, replace names of our ancestors, or create double entries for the same person. For many of us, these incomplete and Eurocentric archives have replaced cultural stories and history. The loss of our language has meant losing our oral traditions, which shared wisdom between generations.

For First Nations womxn, their connection to their culture, family, and identity was further damaged with the Indian Act of 1875. (Women who are Metis and Inuit are not affected by this legislation). Women, like my grandmother, lost their Indian status if they married a man without status. With her marriage, my grandmother formally lost her and our connection to our First Nations identity. In the view of the government, they had succeeded in removing her First Nations culture. In 1985, Bill C-31 allowed womxn to reclaim their status and restore their rights. Through the efforts of my father, our lineage was proven, and his status was granted. However, the legislation has limited the restoration of status to my father, and it will formally end with his death. The language provides another medium to reconnect with our heritage and strengthen our cultural identity. This can include learning Indigenous dialects and taking-on the names of our ancestors. Such practices reinstate the linguistic-cultural heritage, which was lost through Colonial Eurocentric practices. Personally, my identity and cultural claim will not be tied to government recognition. Rather, it is one that is found within me. When I say my grandmother’s name and hear my own, I reclaim our presence in this nation.

Patricia (Kincaid) Mueller

Patricia (Kincaid) Mueller

Having both Métis and Oibjway lineage, the author has a vested interest in cultural preservation through language. Understanding words carry meaning, it is important individuals are represented in the language of their society. Having studied linguistics, the author continues to explore language development in a cultural historical context.

One Response

  1. So proud of your good work and sense of direction & purpose, Patti. Congratulations. Stay the course!

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