North

Here's why the grand chief of the Gwich'in Tribal Council changed his name

It's been his dream since he was a young adult to change his name to one that's belonged to his family for generations, but was obscured by early settlers. And now, its official — the grand chief of the Gwich'in Tribal Council will go by the name Ken Kyikavichik.

The grand chief of the Gwich'in Tribal Council will go by the name Ken Kyikavichik

Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik holds a portrait of his uncle, Chief Johnny Kay, who also considered changing his name before he died. (Submitted by Ken Kyikavichik)

It's been his dream since he was a young adult to change his name to one that's belonged to his family for generations but was obscured by early settlers.

And now it's official: The grand chief of the Gwich'in Tribal Council will go by the name Ken Kyikavichik.

"I decided after getting elected, that was something that I would finally follow through on," he said.

"The reason that it's important was the fact that the history of the name is that it was changed by the early settlers into the area here. They couldn't pronounce 'Kyikavichik.' And so they ended up changing and shortening it to 'Kay.'"

He announced the change from Ken Smith at a recent Gwich'in special assembly in Inuvik, N.W.T.

The name means "carry the arrow."

Kyikavichik said one of his ancestors, who was too young to hunt as a boy, used to follow his father around the village asking if he could carry the arrow.

Kyikavichik's great-grandfather, Chief Johnny Kay Sr., second from left. (Submitted by Ken Kyikavichik)

"After that, they started calling him Kyikavichik. And of course, the name stuck and his descendants were Kyikavichik," he said.

"When the early settlers came, they typically took our names and made them our last names, and then provided the anglicized names for the first names. And so John, Mary, Robert ... these are common names in our communities."

Importance for language

His great-grandfather, Johnny Kyikavichik Sr., was Head man (second in command) to Chief Julius Salu of the Tetlit Gwich'in, a signatory to Treaty 11.

Kyikavichik also had an uncle by the same name, Chief Johnny Kyikavichik, who wanted to change his last name as well, before he passed away last year.

Since this year marks the centennial anniversary for Treaty 11, the grand chief said it's especially important to reclaim his traditional name.

"These are just some of the things that I thought I needed to do to not only let people know where and who I'm from, but also to underpin the importance of our Gwich'in language, which is struggling," he said.

"We've got a declining number of fluent speakers of the Gwich'in language. And it's important that we promote our language and do what we can to improve the level of fluency amongst our communities."

Written by Amy Tucker with files from The Trailbreaker

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