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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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Weweni sago

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Weweni sago. It’s a phrase in Anishinaabemowin that can mean “take care.”

A few weeks before his first birthday, I bounced my son in my arms, trying hard to savour the moment while chasing harsh memories from my mind. A family celebration was looming and that should have been my focus, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how he and his mother almost died the day he was born.

They both fully recovered and now thrive in the most beautiful ways. But for some reason, I kept replaying that traumatic moment and those precarious first days. I didn’t know why I thought that way and it really troubled me. I cradled him close with determined care in my arms and immense love in my heart, while fear and anxiety lingered in my head.

There was no reason to be afraid or anxious. We were blessed with happiness and health as a new family. And while his birth was physically devastating for both him and his mother, I felt like it was “only” emotionally traumatic for me, and that I should have gotten over it by then. Their strength and resilience inspired me every day. Why couldn’t I embrace the wonder, beauty and power of this life and stop the trembling in my fingers?

This internal tension peaked when I couldn’t really bring myself to speak during those bizarre new episodes. I found myself unable to express exactly what I was feeling, which was something I had never experienced. My wife Sarah – ever kind, supportive and loving – noticed, and we tried to talk some of it out.

Together we identified a persistent grief from those moments in the hospital that I had never really addressed. I kept thinking about what my life would be like without them, even though they were tangible, real, beacons of love and might right in front of me. All this time later with no real reason to worry, I knew those were irrational thoughts.

Then she reminded me about what else happened in the last year. My grandmother – one of my life’s pillars – had died in the spring. So did my uncle, the man who made me a rock n’ roll fan. There was great loss in her family too. Her great-grandmother and family matriarch also died in the spring. It was a heavy year of loss. And another person very close to me also experienced serious trauma, but I won’t explain out of respect for their privacy.

While those tragedies had compounded in a short time, I realized there were even more in my past that I still hadn’t emotionally resolved. A few years ago, two cousins of mine died in the same week – one of an overdose, and the other of suicide.

My aunt, who was a storytelling and traditional mentor to me, died suddenly a year before that. There were many more deaths and victims of violence close to me. A lot of my serious grief goes back to the loss of one of my best friends in a car accident when I was 16.

I hadn’t even considered how that grief could accumulate, like stubborn black soot in a stovepipe. Up until then, I thought I had grieved enough at each funeral. The ceremonies around death in our culture make time and space for this very important process.

A fire burns for four days of mourning to make way for a relieving celebration at the end when the spirit leaves this realm to find their way to the spirit world. It’s a beautiful practice that helps the family and community heal from the loss. But when so many of them happen in a relatively short time, maybe it’s harder to fully expunge that sadness.

It’s no secret now that tragedies strike First Nations much more frequently than other communities. A long list of human calamities plague reserves: disease, suicide, violence, abuse, and so on. These are well documented, and the immense weight of these ongoing losses is devastating. A friend recently wrote that being Indigenous in Canada is to be in a perpetual state of grief.

And with all kinds of media constantly feeding reminders of these disproportionate tragedies to First Nations, it’s almost like they become a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. It’s easy to convince yourself that grief and suffering are ingrained in Indigenous identity, and that sadness is permanently fused to our DNA.

All these troublesome thoughts and feelings swamped my mind as soon as it idled. It felt like gravity quadrupled as soon as my focus shifted from my family, my job, or other activities that kept me occupied. Grief was dragging me down, and although it hadn’t taken a major toll on my professional life or my home life yet, it was only a matter of time before it became truly burdensome and I wouldn’t be able to function or focus on work or the happiness that flourished in my home.

Thankfully, my wife saw this become more serious as I became a little withdrawn. My silent sorrow hinted at inner emotional turmoil she’d never seen in me up to that point. She suggested I seek out and speak with a grief counsellor. She helped me find one here in Sudbury who was Anishinaabe and could help me look at my situation through a cultural lens and get me back on a positive path.

I was open and willing to receive this help. Throughout my life, I’ve always considered myself the one others go to when they’re grieving or down. I’ve always believed that I’m emotionally and spiritually strong. I grew up going to ceremonies, which built a strong cultural foundation that created a powerful link to my family, community, and Anishinaabe identity.

But I wasn’t strong enough to handle this on my own, and I was too apprehensive to discuss it with family and friends. I didn’t believe my personal issues were as serious as what other people were living through. I needed an outside perspective to ground me once again.

So I went to the Shkagamik-Kwe Health Centre for help. Without going into the details of the discussion, the person I sat with was able to bring me back to centre. She helped lift a massive weight off me. I understood what had happened to me. And I realized that unresolved grief can have serious consequences. I’m very thankful for this person’s guidance, and to my life partner for leading me to her.

I’ve never suffered seriously from anxiety, depression, or any other mental illness, although I do my best to advocate for people who do. Through this all, I’ve learned that grief isn’t fleeting. It doesn’t disappear when the fire goes out at the end of a funeral ceremony. Sometimes it tucks itself away, hiding behind those fulfilling moments of relief and celebration when family and friends come together in death. It’s an infectious mould that propagates as the years go on and the death toll rises. It has to be acknowledged and confronted, or it never goes away.

I share this for the sake of transparency and to encourage discussion. As a journalist, I write regularly about the grief and loss of others. As an author, I often adorn my own emotional hardships with the mask of fiction. But I believe it’s important for someone like me to be candid about these very real difficulties. It’s helping me, and hopefully writing this will support others in getting help as well.

Weweni sago.

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A grandmother’s everlasting embrace

Waub and Grannie
My very beloved grandmother Ruth Shipman died on June 9, 2017. She embodied everything wonderful about the richness of life, and nearly a month later, it’s still hard to believe and accept that she’s gone. But she lived a very impressive and inspiring 92 years, and I’m extremely proud to be part of her legacy as her grandson. I look back on my life with her with great fondness, adoration, and love.

She was a constant presence throughout my childhood, teaching me to be kind, patient, and creative as she helped raise me. Our time together back then was always filled with all kinds of fun activities. She always encouraged me and my brothers and cousins to engage in pretty much anything that enriched our lives. She was a very passionate storyteller, and often made up vivid stories on the spot to entertain us. She inspired me to let my imagination take me anywhere, and I credit her with leading me to the journey that I’m on today.

I was motivated to succeed in school and in my professional life just to tell her about my accomplishments. I took so much pride in the faith and belief she had in me. She held me up in so many ways, and I became a confident and passionate person because of her influence. She was a huge CBC fan, and being able to tell her that I was hired by CBC to be a reporter was one of the proudest and best moments of my life.

She was a nurse who was committed to healthy living. She was hospitalized for years when she was young because of tuberculosis, and she survived that to emerge as a true force for living in a good way. I really thought she was invincible, which is what makes her death pretty hard to accept. But I can honour her by making sure I live as long as possible as well.

It’s pretty mind-boggling to know that a person who is one quarter of who I am is physically gone. But I feel her with me and in me, and I know that she will always be there. And I see her in my son, and I take great comfort and pride in knowing that he will carry her with him throughout his life as well. I’m very grateful that they were able to share moments in this world together. I can’t wait to tell him all about her.

I love you, Grannie. Rest well.

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