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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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Moon of the Crusted Snow has arrived

Moon of the Crusted Snow

While it’s already been on shelves in many stores for weeks, today is the official publication date for my new novel Moon of the Crusted Snow. I’m very happy to have this story out in the world, and I can’t wait to share it with more and more people as I travel across the land this fall. This book has been a labour of love for many years now, and it’s both a relief and a thrill to have it finished and available to readers everywhere. My sincerest thanks to my wonderful publisher ECW Press for making this dream come true. For those unfamiliar with this latest endeavour of mine, here’s a synopsis:

With winter looming, a small northern Anishinaabe community goes dark. Cut off, people become passive and confused. Panic builds as the food supply dwindles. While the band council and a pocket of community members struggle to maintain order, an unexpected visitor arrives, escaping the crumbling society to the south. Soon after, others follow.
The community leadearship loses its grip on power as the visitors manipulate the tired and hungry to take control of the reserve. Tensions rise and, as the months pass, so does the death toll due to sickness and despair. Frustrated by the building chaos, a group of young friends and their families turn to the land and Anishinaabe tradition in hopes of helping their community thrive again. Guided through the chaos by an unlikely leader named Evan Whitesky, they endeavor to restore order while grappling with a grave decision.

In the lead-up to the book’s release, I had the privilege of attending festivals in Eden Mills, Toronto, and Kingston last month to read and discuss it with some great audiences. The response at these events was very overwhelming and heartwarming, and I’m honoured and humbled to be able to share this story in these ways. And this tour is just getting started; I have more events lined up for the rest of the fall.

Moon of the Crusted Snow Tour

Here are details for the remainder of those dates:

October 13-14 – Calgary Wordfest
October 18-20 – Vancouver Writers Festival
October 27 – Toronto International Festival of Authors
October 28 – Ottawa International Writers Festival
November 2 – Wordstock Sudbury
November 10 – Parry Sound Books
November 17 – McNally Robinson Winnipeg

And there’ll be more to come in the winter and spring! I’ll post updates here as well as on Facebook and Twitter as more readings and events are confirmed, so please follow those accounts for the latest.

To coincide with the book’s release, I’ve been invited by the great people at Open Book to serve as their Writer In Residence for the month of October. It’s an exciting opportunity to write about the story’s origin, some of its wider themes, my writing and storytelling background, my thoughts and experiences related to publishing and literature in Canada, and more. They kicked off my residency with a fun Q & A, and my first post went up yesterday. I plan to write at least ten more entries before the month’s over, so please visit the Open Book site regularly. Hopefully it’ll inspire me to write more on this here blog 😉

I’ll also likely share more articles and other media connected to the book in the coming months, including both positive and negative reviews in the spirit of balance and accountability (here’s a nice little one from Publisher’s Weekly). Because I spend most of my time on the questioning side of the mic, being interviewed is always a little strange for me, but I’m always happy to have the opportunity to talk about the things I love to do. So hopefully there’ll be some worthwhile insights and interesting anecdotes in those forthcoming articles and interviews.

Having Moon of the Crusted Snow available to the world is a dream come true. I’m very thankful for all the guidance and support I’ve received over the years to get here. The growing interest in this story is truly humbling. It’s an honour to be able to share it with you all. Chi-miigwech!

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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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