Reclaiming our names

Our son’s full name is Jiikwis Dean Manoominii. There are many stories behind it, as with any name in any culture. He’s lived with it for more than two and a half years now, and we all echo it proudly amongst friends, family, and strangers. He can pronounce every syllable now, which are the sweetest sounds to a parent’s ears.

My wife Sarah and I put a lot of thought into his name before he arrived. It was important to us as Anishinaabeg to have his name reflect his culture, language, and family history. And as is custom in many Anishinaabe communities, we asked for help to determine what he would be called for the rest of his life. Naming him was a family affair, and we didn’t want it any other way.

Shortly after we found out a child was coming to us, I offered my father semaa (tobacco) to find a name. Where I’m from, elders are often asked to help name children. It’s a custom steeped in respect and ceremony, and we were proud to carry it forward. My grandmother named me after her father; an act that has firmly connected me to my family and community throughout my life. We wanted the same for our child.

He was born early and very traumatically. He spent his first days without a name because we weren’t ready for him. As he and his mother recovered in hospital, my father and stepmother visited us. It was then we learned from my dad that our son would be called Jiikwis, a word that can mean “first born”, “first son”, or “oldest brother” in Anishinaabemowin. It refers to Majiikwis, a key figure in immemorial Anishinaabe stories.

His second name, Dean, is an homage to his great-grandfather of the same name on his mother’s side. She and I are both of mixed Anishinaabe and Canadian heritage, so we felt a name in English was important to include as well. Determining his last name, though, was a more significant act of reclamation.

Manoominii is a variation of the word for wild rice in the Anishinaabe language, and it’s what his wild rice-farming ancestors on my side used to be called. In the mid-19th Century, they were among a group of Potawatomi people who fled the territory now known as Wisconsin, forced out by the Indian Removal Act signed by U.S. President Andrew Jackson years earlier. They settled around the Great Lakes, joining people who had established long-standing Anishinaabe communities in the region.

When the Indian Act was passed in Canada in 1876, the federal government forced Indigenous people to register as “Indians” under the state. My great-great-grandfather, known as John Menominee, was told he had to change what was considered his last name in order to do so. (Anishinaabeg didn’t traditionally use last names, and how he came to be called John Menominee is unknown.)

The Canadian authorities gave him the surname “Rice” because it was a translation they identified for Menominee (Manoominii), and it’s what that branch of my family has been known as since. Our wild rice heritage was thus erased in name, and would only be passed down in story.

In recent decades, though, some of my relatives have reclaimed that identity. Two of my aunts legally changed Rice back to Menominee, and one of my uncles registered his children with that last name at birth. That inspired us to do the same for Jiikwis, using a more modern spelling according to the now widely-adopted double vowel system. And it was fairly easy to do.

When we registered his birth online through Service Ontario, we had the option to give him a different last name. It was as simple as selecting an option from a drop-down menu and typing Manoominii into a box. There was no additional cost, and his birth certificate arrived shortly after with his name spelled out as such, for as long as he decides to carry it.

He’ll know the stories of his names as he grows up. Hopefully he’ll be proud of them. But he’ll be very aware of the history of his people, and how colonialism has attempted to tear down and erase their identity. Just speaking his name is act of resistance and reclamation. They’re words and stories the settler authorities didn’t want spoken on this land any longer. Yet here they are, echoing for generations to come.

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Keeping the circle strong

Me and my dad c. 1980
Me and my dad c. 1980

It’s by and large a Hallmark holiday, but I do like to proclaim my love and thanks for my dad on Father’s Day, even though I’m grateful for him every day of the year. He’s always fulfilled the criteria of a good dad according to the sentimental cards and pop culture. He taught me how to shoot a puck, always kept the fire going, and took all the driving shifts on those long family trips. But he went above and beyond those stereotypical traits to try to raise his children the best he could even though he had no template to follow.

He came to the drum when I was a little boy, so I was very fortunate to grow up drumming and singing our Anishinaabe songs. It was a crucial part of a long and medicinal journey that brought him to ceremony and a deeper understanding of his culture and background. My mother, brothers and I benefited greatly from his reconnection with the Anishinaabe way of life. He sought the drum and our old ways for healing, and it helped us all thrive.

His own father died when he was just 29 years old. He fell off a boat on a cold fall morning just off the shore of our reserve and never came back up. He left behind a wife and five children all under the age of seven. My dad was just five years old. He has little memory of my grandfather, and wasn’t able to share much about him throughout my upbringing. But it was always clear to me that he grew up without a dad, and from a young age I imagined it must have been tough for him to learn how to be a father without having his own.

There were challenges, of course, but he still did a wonderful job raising us. And that’s become much more evident now that I have a son of my own. Parenthood is the ultimate test of a person, and although my journey is really just beginning, I have a much greater appreciation of my parents and the sacrifices they made for us to ensure we grew up in a good way. My dad really did have to figure out fatherhood on his own, and my mom supported him and us along that path.

It was pretty neat to see him reflect on that experience in this video with other Indigenous men that came out a few years ago:

PERFORMANCE – First Nation Dad Roles from Brian Russell on Vimeo.

Although ultimately heartfelt and hopeful, these candid reflections illustrate the widespread, tragic challenges of Indigenous fatherhood on Turtle Island. Colonialism, forced assimilation, and ongoing oppression have severely damaged traditional parenting practices and ideals. Violence like residential schools and the enforcement of the Indian Act infected Anishinaabe masculinity with a brutal toxicity that lingers and continues to manifest itself in horrible ways.

As a result, Indigenous fathers are expected to neglect or destroy. And that happens. But it’s important to remember what’s at the root of that behaviour and why many of these men are struggling. Otherwise stereotypes of the violent or absent Native dad will persist and even become a self-fulfilling prophecy for many young men who become fathers. It’s ultimately up to them to break those cycles, but they need a supportive and understanding community to empower and enable them.

Being a father is the greatest joy I have ever known. My son is the greatest gift I have ever received. I love every moment with him; from teaching him to talk to tempering his tantrums. I walk proudly with him, whether it’s pushing his stroller or taking his hand in mine. Making it just a year and a half into this journey feels like my greatest accomplishment. He teaches me something new every day, and I can’t wait to keep walking on the rest of this path with him.

My responsibility as a father is to raise him to be kind and respectful. It’s on me to ensure that he grows up as a loving and humble person who treats everyone around him as he’d want to be treated. I want him to be patient and polite, and to try to be positive whenever he can. I hope he follows his dreams and never denies his feelings. These are some of the basic values that guide parents in all cultures and nations in raising decent human beings.

These are ideals that were embedded deeply in me thanks to my parents, my family, and my community, despite the intergenerational trauma of displacement and assimilation. Violent cycles were broken, but more importantly, a strong circle was maintained. Strong Indigenous parenthood is about creating and sustaining viable communities, and at the core, survival.

Me and my son Jiikwis, 2018
Me and my son Jiikwis, 2018

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Baamaapii Nookomis

Soda and Waub

Another powerful and revered matriarch has left this world. My dear grandmother Aileen Rice died last month, a week shy of her 87th birthday. I have struggled since her death to put into words just how monumental and important she was to her family, her community, and countless others who she touched in some way. She was a passionate advocate for Anishinaabeg everywhere, lobbying for language and tradition in spaces where authorities tried to erase culture. She fought for equal access to education for Indigenous children. She was a woman of strong faith who incorporated Anishinaabe beliefs into Christian teachings as a minister. She embodied resilience and spirit by enduring some of life’s most brutal hardships and rising up to empower everyone around her.

It’s impossible to capture in mere paragraphs the widespread impact of my grandma’s legendary life and esteemed legacy. I want to write something much more comprehensive about her renowned accomplishments and family story sometime in the future. Losing her less than a year after my grannie died has been very hard, but reflecting fondly on the amazing lives of my grandmothers has been a silver lining to the often dark clouds of the grieving process. So I’ll share just a little bit now, because I want to acknowledge and honour her in every way I can.

My grandma was affectionately known as “Auntie Soda” to generations of people from Wasauksing, Parry Sound, and well beyond. She was born on the land and was proud to live the Anishinaabe way. One of 11 children altogether, she spoke only Anishinaabemowin throughout her childhood and carried her people’s stories and teachings from an early age. She would later regale us, her grandchildren, with these treasured details of our heritage and the generations of family lines that we could draw deep into Anishinaabe territory. It was an honour to learn these stories from her.

There’s so much about her vibrant life to take pride in, especially being a part of the strong family she led. She and my grandfather married young and had five children by their late 20s. When he died in a tragic boating mishap, she was left to raise them all on her own. The oldest was seven years old and the youngest was two months. The threat of apprehension loomed constantly. Her kids – including my father – could have been taken to residential school or placed in the child welfare system. Breaking up Indigenous families and erasing culture was official Canadian policy. But somehow, she was able to resist that at every turn, and kept them all together at home.

When that threat dissipated, she took her place as an ardent advocate for equal education opportunities for Indigenous children. She became the first Anishinaabe person to serve on the nearby town’s school board. She then adopted two more children from a relative, bringing the total to seven she raised by herself. All of her kids went on to post-secondary education beginning in the 1970s, when Indigenous people were rarely considered for or seen in universities and colleges in Canada. My grandma blazed a trail that made it much less difficult for me and my cousins and peers in Wasauksing to follow.

These are just a few basic and brief highlights. There’s so much more she lived through, like losing a daughter to homicide and never seeing justice for her. She lost many more relatives to tragedy. She saw her beloved Ojibwe language gradually fade from our community. She endured her homeland in the depths of despair and abuse, but she never gave up hope that it could one day heal. All the while, she never let any of her losses or hardships define her, and she never took any shit from anyone.

My grandma is gone now, but her story is still being written. Her spirit continues to thrive in all of us who are proud to be Anishinaabe. And I’ll share more of her remarkable journey as soon as I can. Baamaapii Nookomis. Gizaagin.

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