What's in a name? Why three people are fighting for their traditional names

Facebook won't recognize them. Neither will some government agencies. But that hasn't stopped Shene, IsKwé and Khelsilem from fighting for the right to use traditional, indigenous names.
IsKwé's Facebook page was suspended on Thanksgiving weekend over concerns about her name. (IsKwé / Facebook) (Courtesy: Facebook.com/IsKwe)

Facebook won't recognize them. Neither will some government agencies. But that hasn't stopped Shene, Iskwé and Khelsilem from fighting for the right to use traditional, indigenous names.

Facebook tells IsKwé to use her 'authentic name' 

Photo Courtesy: Facebook.com/IsKwe (IsKwé / Facebook)

Genre-defying Winnipeg musician IsKwé woke up on Thanksgiving Day to find her personal Facebook page shut down. 

IsKwé, whose traditional Cree name is Wasekwan Iskwew, was told by Facebook that the service requires users to go by their 'authentic name'. Since her ID is under her English name – Meghan Meisters – she was asked to submit proof of her identity and to use the site under her legal name. 

"I was furious," said IsKwé, who regularly uses her personal profile to share her music and art.

She decided to submit her identification and have her account unlocked. At the same time, she also sent an email to Facebook and posted on her fan page about the importance of using her traditional name. 

My traditional name in my traditional language was irrelevant because my government ID didn't claim it. And it didn't count. There was no room for it on social media.- IsKwé 

Earlier this week, Facebook reversed its decision and allowed IsKwé to continue using her personal page under her preferred identity. But while her situation was resolved quickly, she says there is a long way to go in making sure indigenous identities have a safe space on social media. 

"It's not recognizing people's individuality, their culture, their spirit," she said.

Sahaiʔa, a Chipewyan name, not allowed on N.W.T. birth certificate

Photo Courtesy: Shene Catholique Valpy

Picking out a baby name is one of the most joyous parts of being a parent. But what if the name you choose is not allowed? 

Sahaiʔa roughly translates to "when the sun breaks on the horizon" in the Chipeweyan language. It's the name Shene Catholique-Valpy chose for her daughter when she born in February of 2014.

But the vital statistics department in the Northwest Territories rejected her paperwork because the glottal stop – ʔ – is not part of the Roman alphabet. Since then, she has been fighting to have her daughter's name appear as she intends it to on her birth certificate.

Shannon Gullberg, the territory's languages commissioner, recognizes that not allowing traditional names violates the Official Languages Act. The problem, she says, is that even if the N.W.T. made allowances for different languages "other jurisdictions have similar requirements for the Roman Alphabet." This might cause problems for N.W.T. residents seeking paperwork from other agencies, she added. 

Shene continues to fight to for her daughter's traditional name to be formally recognized. She said she's hopeful that things will change sooner rather than later. 

"I believe that in my daughter's lifetime this will be solved […] and she'll be able to have her traditional name spelled on her birth certificate."

Carrying his traditional name, 'Dustin' transitions to Khelsilem 

(Blaire Russell)

Khelsilem was born Dustin Rivers, a nod to Dustin Hoffman after his role in Little Big Man, he explained.

A few years ago, his grandmother told him that he was ready to receive his ancestral names.

To carry one name is considered a huge honour, to carry more than one name is an even bigger honour.- Khelsilem

He received two. And then he was faced with the dilemma of which name to use publicly, if at all.

As he was getting ready to leave the name Dustin behind, a friend offered some advice, telling Khelsilem that identifying by his indigenous name would become an opportunity to practice patience and share his culture. 

"It's very interesting when I introduce myself because I never know what a person's reaction is going to be," Khelsilem said.

"People get very curious and very interested. Every time that I introduce myself, every time I get an opportunity to talk about it, it opens that door to those curiosities."