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  • Kenneth Cohen

What's In A Name?

Carlisle Indian School 1900

Native American prayers sometimes begin with a simple statement of one’s name--“My name is... I send a voice to you, Great Spirit.” I say my name because my words are a matter of honor; I take responsibility for what I say. Spirits and the Great Spirit recognize me by my name, especially by my sacred name, the name that I received in vision. Some names are public and may be shared. Others are secret, not spoken aloud, a kind of password by which one is recognized in the spirit world. To know a person’s sacred name is both a responsibility and a commitment. “Someone who knows my true name,” a Cherokee medicine man once confided, “will stand by my side in any storm. He will run through a hail of bullets if need be.” Words are a combination of breath and vibration or energy, the two most fundamental elements of life. A name is an expression of who a person is and is thus an especially powerful word. It must be used with care and respect. After Native children were forcibly removed from their families, both U.S. and Canadian residential schools required uniforms, cut hair, English-only (the prohibition of Native languages), and new names, all part of the genocidal attempt to wipe out First Peoples identity. This is in addition to the heinous physical and sexual abuse perpetrated by church and state. "Kill the Indian, save the man." was the common saying. Native American jokes are often in the form of stories that convey deep truths. Below is one that illustrates cultural differences between indigenous and Euro-American, especially regarding names. When the missionaries came to Native villages in the Pacific Northwest, they had many odd customs. They believed that truth could be found in books and put more worth in what other people said a long time ago rather than what they said now. They worshipped in buildings rather than in nature. They didn’t talk about dreams. They wanted people to dress in clothes that were made from animals they did not recognize. They demanded communication in a language with little song or poetry and disconnected from the land. The only sign language they knew was an insult: “the sign of the cross” they called it as they drew a vertical line crossed by a horizontal line, which to the Native people meant “Take down your home and get out of here!” But two of the strangest customs of all had to do with names and diet. Missionaries would take tribal members to the river, dunk them in it and say, “Your name is no longer ‘Good Road’ but John. I don’t want to ever hear the name ‘Good Road’ again. Your name is not ‘Beautiful Wind Woman’ but Sarah. Your name is not ‘Bear Who Protects the People’ but Matthew.” And so on. They also required that all good Christians eat fish on Fridays, even if the salmon were not running and deer were plentiful. One Friday afternoon the priest was walking through the village, when he smelled something odd. “Seems like someone is cooking meat.” The scent was coming from the cedar hut of the Chief. The priest knocked on the door, announced himself, and then heard a scrambling noise inside. The Chief answered the door and asked, “How can I help you Father Luke?” “I thought I smelled meat cooking.” “Oh no,” the Chief replied, “We are good Indians. It’s Friday, and we only eat fish.” Satisfied, the priest wandered off. Next week, on the same day, the priest was again taking a walk, and as he passed the Chief’s home, he smelled something suspicious. He knocked, “Chief, I’d like to speak with you.” The priest heard a metallic sound, like the clicking of pots and pans, and after short time, the Chief opened the door. The priest could clearly see a fish on a large frying pan, and several tribal members sitting around a small table. “It’s nothing,” the priest said, and he continued on his way. A week later, again, the priest decides to check on his parishioners. This time there was no mistaking the aroma of roasting meat. Instead of knocking, he throws open the Chief’s cedar door and sees him grilling a side of venison. Outraged, the priest demands, “What is the meaning of this! You know the rules. Only fish on Fridays!” The Chief calmly declared, “Yes, we know the rules.” “Well what do you call that?” the priest demanded, pointing accusingly at the meat. The Chief continued, “We took the deer to the river, dunked it in and named it ‘Salmon.’”

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