You may have stolen and mined our lands, but you will not steal and mine our names

Kahente Horn-Miller explains why a filmmaker's use of her daughter's Kanien’kehá name for a character in a script was deeply offensive.

'Taking our names and using them for profit is a whole other level of insult,' says Kahente Horn-Miller

Kahente Horn-Miller says she is proud to have a Kanien'kehá (Mohawk language) name as naming practices are one of the few Kanien'kehá:ka traditions that have withstood the onslaught of colonization. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Recently, my family was confronted with an assault on the very essence of who we are and what connects us to the natural world.

I am Kanien'kehá:ka. We are a matrilineal people who transmit our clans and identity through our women. When my eldest daughter was born, she was recognized with the name Karonhioko'he, which means "she takes the sky out of the water." This name is unique within our community and the world and it is understood that no one else shall bear it.

In our way, when a person passes on, the name is taken back by the clan to be bestowed upon another baby. If there is another child given the same name as a living person, it is the responsibility of the family and clan to approach the family of that child with a basket and "take back the name."

Our naming practices happen to be one of the few traditions that have withstood the onslaught of colonization. I am proud to have a Kanien'kehá name, along with my sisters, children and mother. We have struggled our entire lives to ensure those we encounter learned our names and our mother told everyone to never give us nicknames. To use our name is to show respect and recognition of our individuality and connection to community.

The filmmaker's request

My daughter recently received a request from a filmmaker via Instagram to assist her with pronouncing her name properly and to provide more information on Mohawk culture because the filmmaker had written a script that features a character appropriating my daughter's name.

Those unfamiliar with Indigenous culture and ways would be hard-pressed to recognize how infuriating receiving such requests are.

It's entitlement born out of ignorance; yet another manifestation of colonial violence. This is appropriation.

After facing an onslaught of pain and anger from Indigenous people online, the filmmaker has since removed the name from the film, deleted the film's social media accounts and has said on Instagram she considers herself to be a victim of bullying.

This issue will not end here. We will continue to be faced with the impacts of a sense of entitlement by others to tell our Indigenous stories and use our language. Why tell our stories? Why not tell your own?

We have a right to protect our own symbols and traditions. Taking our names and using them for profit is a whole other level of insult.

We can think back to more recent examples of appropriation like the controversy surrounding Joseph Boyden or Pocahottie costumes at Halloween.

Here, the offence is more personal and strikes to the heart of community practice surrounding clan and kinship.

In this case, it is the theft of a name and then the eventual transmutation of and reduction of its essence to some caricature embodied with an outsider's misconceptions of Kanien'kehá:ka culture.

Fighting cultural theft

The theft of a sacred name given to someone by their community reduces it to a distortion, stealing all of its significance and meaning, tainting it for future generations. This battle has only just begun. Kanien'kehá:ka female names appear on a website out of British Columbia on the history and etymology of names. To date, I find my name and the names of my sister in three books of fiction.

As we struggle to hang on to our languages and traditions, others are stealing what we have left and using it for amusement and personal gain. Just as many mining operations across North America visit environmental devastation on traditional lands, we find our cultures, traditions, languages and even our very names mined for the profit of outsiders.

We are paying attention to this new onslaught. It is frustrating and unacceptable that in the aftermath of the lessons of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that simple awareness and acceptance of our right to our own cultural sovereignty simply hasn't sunk in.

About the Author

Kahente Horn-Miller (Kanien:keha’ka/Mohawk) is an assistant professor in the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University. Her governance work and community-based research involves interpreting Haudenosaunee culture and bringing new life to old traditions.