Nova Scotia·Eskasoni Community Bureau

Why are there so many nicknames in Mi'kmaw communities?

Nicknames abound in places like Eskasoni First Nation. A Mi'kmaw historian says the tradition dates back to at least the 17th century.

Nicknames are a part of Mi'kmaw culture, tradition

Danielle (Pokey) Paul lives in Eskasoni, N.S. where there are plenty of nicknames within the community. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

This story is part of a series from CBC's Eskasoni Community Bureau. This series comes from weeks of conversations with community members about what they feel is important to see, hear and read on CBC's platforms.

Walter Jij, Sugar and Pokey. 

Like many communities across the Maritimes, Eskasoni First Nation is full of nicknames.

That's mostly because they are a longstanding part of Mi'kmaw culture and tradition.

"Everybody calls me Sugar, the doctor calls me Sugar, the priest calls me Sugar," said Madeline Poulette, an Eskasoni grandmother and retired tour guide. 

Poulette is not only sweet, but as a child she was always hiding under the kitchen table with the sugar dish. 

In Poulette's family, all 11 of her siblings were given nicknames. She said many of them were named when something else was meant to be spoken.

"It's like if your brother and sister said your name and whatever name came out just stayed," Poulette said. 

Danielle Kateri Paul started being called Pokey as a toddler. She's 27 now and most people in Eskasoni still call her by that name.

"I don't hear my real name often," Paul said. " I love it. I grew up hearing it, so I'm used to it. But people used to make fun of me, called me polka-dot or … the hokey-pokey song..."

Part of the reason Paul loves her nickname is because it was given to her by her grandfather after she was thrown a Pocahontas-themed birthday party. 

Walter Denny says many people in Eskasoni were given nicknames like junior – or jij in Mi'kmaw – to differentiate them from their parents or grandparents with the same names. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

"My grandpa, he spoke a lot of Mi'kmaw, so he called me Pokey because he couldn't pronounce Pocahontas. I look up to Pocahontas since she was the first Indian princess. The way I thought of her was as free-spirited, into nature and kind and humble, and that's how I think of my nickname."

The tradition of nicknames dates back to the 1700s and 1800s, according to hereditary Chief Stephen Augustine. 

Augustine said tribes often hid their chief's identity to protect them during battles. 

"During the French and English wars they were always after the chief of the Mi'kmaw nation. And so they hid his identity by giving him a nickname."

Augustine, who grew up in Elsipogtog in New Brunswick, still carries a nickname because of some pins he made years ago while running for public office. 

"Still today, when I go back home, some of the elders will say, 'Oh, here's Steve for Chief, how are you doing?"'

Augustine said today nicknames are more commonly given out due to a funny circumstance or a character trait.

Madeline (Sugar) Poulette says all 11 of her siblings were given nicknames as kids growing up in the 1950s and 60s in Eskasoni First Nation. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

But the tradition of nicknames also endured because it helps people identify family members with similar names.

Among them is Walter Denny. 

The retired RCMP officer carries the nickname of Walter junior, or Walter jij in Mi'kmaw. That name was given to differentiate him from his father, whose name was also Walter.

"It's a smaller version of your dad," Denny said.

Many of the nicknames are also in Mi'kmaw, including a fellow whose name translates into 'Our Mike.'

Families in Eskasoni also have nicknames for their last names such as Jown – which is often used by people with the last name Denny. 

Walter Denny said he believes his family's Jown nickname was handed down by his great great-grandfather, although he's not sure the story behind it. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erin Pottie

Reporter

Erin Pottie is a CBC reporter based in Sydney. She has been covering local news in Cape Breton for 15 years. Story ideas welcome at erin.pottie@cbc.ca.

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