Racist names, Racist Places

by Special Correspondent Jessica Yee

Savage. Squaw. Indian. Would we all agree that these are immensely derogatory names that should not be, in this day and age, still used to geographically locate places? Or even people, for that matter?

From the varying answers I’ve received when posing this question, it all really depends on who you ask and what it’s for. Percie Sacobie from the Maliseet Nation in New Brunswick, is currently lobbying the city council of St. Mary’s to change the name of “Savage Island”, located seven kilometres west of Fredericton, to something less demeaning to the Wolastoqiyik people.

He went to city council with historical documentation of its origin, and the full support of the Maliseet chiefs from Oromocto, Kingsclear, Tobique, Woodstock, Madawaska and St. Mary’s First Nations, only to be told that he has to submit some sort of formal application process, and maybe, just maybe, they might consider changing it.

The Wolastoqiyik people are recorded to have used Indian (as it’s locally referred to) or Savage Island as far back as 1762, when Surveyor General Charles Morris described it as “a place where the Maliseets held their annual council.” It was a place where disputes were settled and hunting grounds allotted to each family before they began their summer hunts.

Percie Sacobie is suggesting the island’s name be changed to “Eqpahak Island”, which means “at head of tide on river or inlet.”

This is quite a similar story to a recent number of name change requests, or challenges to the history of the seemingly racist names places have been given. In December 2000, the province of British Columbia passed legislation that removed the word “Squaw” from all public establishments where the word is used. Although the act of carrying out this legislation has been less than desirable, British Columbia followed suit from Saskatchewan, Alberta, Prince Edward Island and the Yukon, as well as a number of U.S. states who also passed similar legislation.

Yet there are some people who contest that “squaw” isn’t even an offensive word. They claim that this was an honorable word for women, before it was twisted around to mean something racist and degrading by the colonizers. Even if the word were ever to be reclaimed, it has certainly been tainted for good by its misuse.

Now take the word “Indian” for example. Although we’re not from India, although Columbus seriously got it wrong, and although many of our communities are starting to reassert their ancestral language rights, we still use it. This is an ongoing, decades-old word battle with folks from all across Turtle Island, many who say we’ve got “bigger” problems to worry about than what we’re being called, and that we’ve been using it for so long anyways, what’s the problem with it? (And yes I know that “Native” is also tumultuous word territory). In Canada, we have begun to use First Nations and Aboriginal, although depending on who you ask, even this isn’t cutting it, particularly the word “Aboriginal” since by government standards, it’s an assimilative term used to meld First Nations, Inuit, and Métis into one Indigenous funding pot, while one of us is bound to continuously lose out on getting culturally competent services.

If you asked me, naming is in fact important, but the language we are using is an even more troubling situation to assess. According to UNESCO, approximately 600 languages have disappeared in the last century and they continue to disappear at a rate of one language every two weeks. Up to 90 percent of the world’s languages are likely to disappear before the end of this century if current trends are allowed to continue. Within Canada and the United States, there are more than 750 First Nations with hundreds more languages and dialects, yet there is no official federal language in the US, and only English and French in Canada. Recent reports have also said that Cree, Ojibway, and Inuktitut are the three Aboriginal languages considered to survive right now in Canada.

I personally don’t like the word Indian myself so I try not to use it, but from an organizational perspective, this is a constant difficulty to render in “appropriateness” so people can self-determine what they want to be called (and if folks want to be called Indians – that’s fine by me). But let’s be clear, English itself is the language of the colonizer. While we struggle to find the words that will do us justice, in whatever context, I know that English will not always be able to do that for us, and perhaps this is where it becomes such a hardship to deal with. I often think that if I spoke my own language, Mohawk, fluently, I might be able to convey the sentiments I try so hard to come up with, since in my language, one word can have multiple meanings and connotations.

Thankfully there are many efforts being made to recover Indigenous languages worldwide, and my own community, with the Akwesasne Freedom School, has made considerable change so that our young people grow up totally immersed in the language and culture, with 9 year olds who now run circles around us, completely fluent in Mohawk. I think the greater issue lies within empowering people to continue to take all of these issues seriously, and particularly within the Aboriginal community, not to denounce one and other in the name of better “priorities” when one of us tries to actually do something about it.

Case in point: recently my partner who is Oneida was on his way back from a Pow Wow, when he asked the two youth he was travelling with what they would like to be called. He said “instead of Indian or Aboriginal, what do you want to be called?” It was an interesting question that made them think, since no one had really asked that before. My partner said “How do you want people to know who you are?” And they both replied “I want people to know that I’m Ihanktonwan Dakota and if they don’t know what that means, I’ll explain it to them”. This was proceeded by a conversation on how the youth felt it was important that their Nation be known and that it was cool for other people to know what it’s really all about, and actually about time that they did.

We definitely do need to think of our impact on next generations if we are hoping for any sort of true reclamation or sustainability. Like many other people, I remember growing up and not really being into my culture, but now at 23, I am so proud to be Mohawk and if I ever have children, I want to raise them with the fundamental understanding and recognition of their roots. When I talk to other communities, Native and non-Native, I usually begin my presentations by introducing myself in my language and saying that I’m proud to be Native! Some of our youth are rejecting the old world all together because of assimilation and the difficulty to balance walking in the new world as well, but this is our challenge and responsibility, to find middle ground for us to live on.

So while I agree that we do have so many other issues to deal with, in order to get to where we are trying to go; which is the comprehension and respect of our culture and sovereign peoples, it is important that we identify who we really are. In our Indigenous cultures, saying I’m Mohawk carries a lot more weight than just the word itself. It tells people where I come from, who my ancestors are, and the strength that I bring into my person every day because of who I am. And that’s just what I can tell you in English!

It seems that there is more public discourse on Native issues these days (albeit not the most positive or accurate information being disseminated) but if we are going to talk, we can at least try and get who and what we are talking about right.