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.


Digital Smoke Signals

About half of my waking life is spent in front of some sort of screen as I ingest a variety of media. I’ve lamented this routine before, and I don’t really foresee my habits changing as long as I make a living off of words and images that are transmitted digitally. It can be a sad and frustrating fact of modern life, but at the same time I can’t disregard the power of modern communications and its contribution to cultural preservation. In the past few months I’ve seen social media help shine a spotlight on Aboriginal issues largely ignored by mainstream media. On the other hand, it has prompted the widespread sharing of mainstream media projects dedicated to some of those issues. The internet has helped me strengthen my Ojibway language skills. It has also bolstered my personal ties to family and community. And as Aboriginal people find new ways to reinforce traditional and new stories through the written and spoken word, new media will play an even bigger role in keeping them alive.

On a grand level, a YouTube video posted by a Member of Parliament last fall went viral on Facebook and Twitter and introduced the country to a northern Ontario Cree community called Attawapiskat. Most people in the broader national Aboriginal community were already well aware of the housing and schooling issues that persisted there (thanks in large part to the incredible work of the late Shannen Koostachin). But the buzz on social media forced national broadcasters and newspapers to report on it. While the housing problems in the community are far from being resolved, the ongoing saga has showed people in other communities that all it takes to provoke national discussion is a simple video camera and a YouTube account.

That’s not to say mainstream media is largely neglecting Aboriginal issues in Canada. There’s still a lot of work to do, but broadcast, print, and online outlets are devoting more space than ever to the unique stories of Canada’s fastest growing demographic, and again these stories are so easily shared on social media. A great example is CBC’s massive 8th Fire project. The focus was forging a new relationship between Canada and its vibrant and diverse Aboriginal peoples through stories in various media. These vignettes, articles, and episodes were easily sharable. They prompted discussions in new circles, and I think it’s because the scope has widened far beyond traditional broadcast schedules. I was fortunate enough to contribute pieces as a filmmaker/journalist and columns as an author, and I found it hugely rewarding to be able to share them so easily. The feedback was great and I wouldn’t have been able to reach out like that even five years ago.

As a result, my developing journey as an author has benefited from a lot of people spreading the word about my first foray into fiction, Midnight Sweatlodge. But on a personal level I find a lot of the most basic connections via these digital smoke signals hugely fulfilling. As I’ve mentioned, I’m currently reconnecting with Anishinaabemowin (the Ojibway language) and finding online resources like dictionaries and discussion groups has never been easier. While it’s impossible to really learn the language this way, online and social media provide a new crutch to prop it up.

Harnessing Aboriginal language and culture this way should not substitute the spoken word and the communal power of sharing these experiences and stories in person. Our cultures survived thanks to the resilience of people who vowed to sustain them behind the back of assimilative practices. People spoke the language in secret and held sweatlodges in the dark of night. But digital media are a viable supplement in order to ensure culture endures. Virtually, communities are closer than ever sharing traditional words and stories, and more importantly, making connections. And on the most basic personal level, that’s heartwarming and spiritually satisfying. I can Skype with my mom who’s a diabetes educator in Innu communities in Labrador, and I can Facetime with my dad who’s a cultural educator back in my home territory of Central Ontario. Those opportunities will always make me smile.



The past couple of months have been quite busy. On top of my usual day job, I’ve been fortunate enough to take Midnight Sweatlodge on the road for a few readings and a festival, and I’ve also had the opportunity to work on some features for CBC’s upcoming 8th Fire project. While these storytelling and sharing experiences have been immensely fulfilling, this fall, nothing has warmed my heart and lifted my spirit as much as reconnecting with the traditional language of my people. Every Monday and Wednesday evening since early September, I’ve been taking Ojibway language classes at Carleton University. It’s a unique program available to students for course credit, and it’s also open to Ottawa community members (like me) for free. I’ve neglected Anishinaabemowin for far too long, and being able to learn it again has been fun, enlightening, and most importantly, it’s been healing.

As a small child I learned a handful of words and phrases growing up in Wasauksing. The older generations offered a few grains of the language here and there, but it never dominated everyday dialogue. The elders often spoke it regularly with each other, but rarely with us kids. I suppose there was still a great deal of shame attached to it as a “primitive” language. We went to Ryerson Indian Day School on the reserve, and when that became Wasauksing Kinomaugewgamik in the late 1980s, I remember learning a lot more Anishinaabemowin in school. It became like a refurbished old toy for me and my peers – we shared jokes and funny words in Ojibway because we thought it was neat. But we never really understood how fragile it was, or how important it was for us to maintain it.

Then we all went to high school off-reserve. Some of us kept it up, but for me, it dropped from my priorities. I really don’t know why. I became interested in sports, music, literature, and popular culture, and I guess my native language didn’t fit in with those western ambitions. Learning how to play a D minor chord on guitar was more important than knowing how to say the act in Ojibway. I then went to Germany for a year and rehashed some lines for the novel benefit of my hosts, but after a while that didn’t feel right, so I stopped.

Soon after returning to Canada I moved to the city to go to University and I sparsely revisited Anishinaabemowin until now. I have been an urban Indian for 13 years, spending time in Toronto, Winnipeg, and now Ottawa. I always found it somewhat difficult to find ways to speak Ojibway in each city. Every time I went home to Wasauksing I attempted to pick the language back up through conversations with my grandmother and other relatives, but when you’re only doing that once every couple of months, it’s never gonna stick. They always seemed like feeble attempts just to make myself feel better as an Anishinaabe person. So there’s always been a fog of guilt hanging over my head that’s just been easier to ignore than to try to clear.

But now at age 32 I have the opportunity to devote some serious time to reconnecting with it, and I’m thankful that my classmates, friends, family, and Carleton have allowed me to learn with them. Some may find it ironic that it took a contemporary classroom in a higher learning setting for me and my peers to accomplish this, but this shared understanding transcends the classroom. We challenge each other. We laugh. We continue our dialogue well beyond the classroom. It’s some of the most fun I’ve had in a very long time. But as my friend Geraldine pointed out to me the other day, although we may not know it, we’re healing. This language was supposed to die. But mere decades after the authorities tried to beat it from us, here we are, speaking it proudly.

Nmwendis. Wii Anishinaabe-gaagiigido. Wii mino bemaadiz. Miigwech ndikid.