Christi Belcourt: Reclaiming ourselves one name at a time

First Nations, Ojibway, Blackfoot, Indian, Treaty, Halfbreed and Status Indian are all fairly familiar English words but none are the names that indigenous peoples called ourselves in our own languages, says Christi Belcourt.

Can aboriginal identity be reclaimed by changing names?

Detail from a work in progress by artist Christi Belcourt (Christi Belcourt)

Editor's note: Today Hobbema will become Maskwacis — Cree for 'Bear Hill'. To mark the occasion, we are publishing an excerpt of an essay that Christi Belcourt wrote earlier in 2013, on reclaiming names. 

First Nations, Ojibway, Blackfoot, Indian, Aboriginal, Treaty, Halfbreed, Cree and Status Indian are all fairly familiar English words but none of them are the names by which we, the various indigenous peoples, call 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 Métis is not the name people called themselves in the language in Manitou Sakhahigan, the community where my dad was born and raised. And even that place is not known by its original name but by it’s English/French name, Lac Ste. Anne.

Issue of naming places in Canada is complex

Detail from Good Land by artist Christi Belcourt. (Christi Belcourt)
Some would argue Canada reflects its indigenous roots because there are many place names that are derived from the original Indigenous languages — even though the origins and meanings of those names have all been lost to the history Canadians tell to one another about Canada. Toronto is a case in point.

I would argue 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.

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.- Christi Belcourt

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 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.

Reclaiming one word at a time

Christi Belcourt says 'I always use Biidewe’anikwetok, the Anishinaabe name I was given in ceremony to introduce myself, before English". (Jeana Peltier)
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.

- Biidewe’anikwetok

This essay has been edited for length, and published with the permission of the author. The full essay will appear in The Winter We Danced: Voices from the Past, the Future, and the Idle No More Movement, edited by The Kino-nda-niimi Collective and published by Arbeiter Ring. 


Christi Belcourt is a Metis visual artist with a deep respect for the traditions and knowledge of her people. She is the author of "Medicines To Help Us" (Gabriel Dumont Institute, 2007) and Beadwork (Ningwakwe Learning Press, 2010) Belcourt has won recognition for her fine artistry through numerous exhibitions. Her current exhibition is called "Walking with our sisters".


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