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What’s In a Name?

In November 2022 I received my ancestral name Switametelót—a name gifted to my great-grandmother from her father Switamet.  When my great-grandmother married a non-Indigenous man, she was no longer considered Indigenous and her name was buried under the rubble of discrimination found in the Indian Act.  The name could not be passed to my grandmother nor my mother in their lifetime.  What an injustice to the matriarchs of my family!  Five generations later, I reclaimed our family name.  Through this reclamation, my connection to Squiala (my great grandfather’s traditonal territory) is fully recognized;  the shame and the loss of identity is removed from my ancestors and future generations will recognize the name and the story behind it.  Our family story is shared by many Indigenous families. 

Recently I had been pondering a news article about an Indigenous couple in BC who were in a court battle because the BC government refused to register the name of their child as it was written.  

The B.C. registrar cited the “impact that the registration of this information would have on our partners and our systems that are unable to accept these symbols or reproduce them onto their secondary identification documents, such as a driver’s licence or health care card.” (Vancouver Sun)

The Canadian government recognizes and uses pronunciation in French and English languages.  Other languages can be documented properly with the technology available.

The name means “the place where people were blessed” and has deep significance for the family.

The name chosen by the parents for their baby is: λugʷaləs K’ala’ask, written in the Kwakwala language.  The name means “the place where people were blessed” and has deep significance for the family.

What an injustice that Indigenous parents were being forced to change the name in which they had chosen for their child, so that the name would fit the requirements of the system!

Last month I was facilitating an Indigenous focused Day of Learning with homeschoolers and their parents.  As we introduced ourselves to one another, I was blessed to hear them sharing their name, the meaning of their name, and why they were given that name.  The families in the circle came from different parts of the world yet they all had a common value, the importance of their name.

Three students with consent from their parents gave me permission to share their names in this article: 

  • Noah is a Biblical name and he shares an Indonesian name Widjaya with all his siblings to honor his Dad’s side of the family.  
  • Madelin Lee B… has a Dutch last name but also shares the name Lee with her siblings as that honors her Mom’s side of the family.
  • Kirsten means Christ follower; Mattea means a gift of God; Wan-Kay means answered prayer.  Her names honor her Dutch and Chinese heritage and her miraculous birth story.

Two Biblical passages that speak to the value and preciousness of names are:

  • A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches…Proverbs 22:1
  • A good name is better than precious ointment Ecclesiastes 7:1

When the BC government released an action plan for implementing UNDRIP, one of the steps in the plan was to adopt an “inclusive digital font” that allows Indigenous languages to be included in official records.  The statement did not clarify a timeline nor which symbols will be recognized. 

Indigenous people have ancestral and family names with deep significance--their connection to the land, to the history of their ancestors, and the values and traditions of their traditional stories. Just because the spelling or pronunciation is difficult for some, does not justify the refusal of providing respect and dignity to Indigenous people as they name their children the name of their choosing.

On March 29, 2023 I read another news article

After 13 months of fighting, the parents of λugʷaləs K’ala’ask have received a birth certificate that accurately represents the spelling of his name.  

What’s in a name? The child will know who they are; where they come from.

A statement from the provincial Ministry of Health says that every Indigenous person in the province should be able to have their name accurately reflected on their documents. However, they must sign a waiver to understand the challenges that this may play for registering for government services.

Even though there is a glimmer of hope for other Indigenous families to reclaim their traditional names, the burden to challenge oppressive legislation lies with individual Indigenous families. There needs to be justice for all families to name their children as they choose without barriers of signing a waiver indicating that the choice of name may cause challenges for registering for government services such as health care, education, travel documents, etc.    

What’s in a name?  The delight of parents choosing the right name for their child; the joy of knowing that ancestral names are still alive and spoken; the connection to place, culture, values and tradition.

What’s in a name? The child will know who they are; where they come from; the history and meaning of their name; motivation to live up to their name.


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