The answer to that question for an Anishinaabe person is – a lot. Our traditional names are spiritual and very meaningful. Every nation has a different naming tradition but the teaching that I received was that unique names were given to an individual related to an accomplishment, destiny or life event. Family members or Elders give traditional names. Note that this is an over-simplified explanation but I never said that I was qualified to share traditional stories!
I have a spirit name, as they are called. My son also has a spirit name, however, his typical first name (the name that everyone knows him by) is in the Anishnaabe (Ojibwe) language. He was originally to be named Holden after one of my favourite literary characters, Holden Caulfield, from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. However, that name was nixed when we verbally said Holden aloud with Fuzz’s last name. Let’s just say it was the equivalent to giving your baby a phrase rather than a name. After this name was ruled out, I started thinking about giving him a name in Anishnaabemowin (the Ojibwe language). Sure, it would be a “word name” which range from the Puritan word names such as Grace, Felicity, and Hope to the quirkier like Apple, Pilot and Audio Science …. but it would a be a word from the Anishnaabe language.
Fuzz was more than on board with this idea so we compiled a list of Anishinaabe words that were relatively short, pronounceable by the average English speaker and had meanings that were relevant to us. When we came across my son’s name, I knew it was perfect and he was essentially named after my favourite Yusuf Islam song (that’s Cat Stevens to you older folks.)
Fuzz didn’t know that when I compiled the list of names, I anglicized the spelling of our son’s name. The written Anishinaabe language uses the double vowel system and I didn’t want my son to go through life with people constantly mispronouncing his name. Fuzz was upset when I finally told him that I did this, but I did not want him to be constantly correcting people. I do that enough already…
It is not often that is mispronounced but when it is, people tend to emphasize the wrong portion of the word or imagine an “e” sound at the end of his name. Mispronunciations do not bother me as much as the people who comment that the name being “weird” or “odd”. I somehow doubt that same person would say that to a person named Mei-Ling or Sundeep. Perhaps our son does not look “ethnic” enough and people feel more comfortable to share what they really think? I don’t know. I once had a neighbour ask what our son’s name was and when told, she responded with “funny, it sounds Nordic. You don’t have blond hair and blue eyes”. When I told her that it was in no way Nordic but Ojibwe she acted as though I was going to set up a blockade on her driveway. Ignorance is funny sometimes.
I am now 8 months pregnant with our second child. The ultrasound told us that we are having a little girl. My midwife tells me that information is about 90% correct but we are still holding out until birth day. I did, however, pick out a girl’s name that is a combination of mine and Fuzz’s grandmother’s name. Fuzz ruled it out because he decided it was too masculine. It will now become her middle name because Fuzz is insisting that her first name must also be Anishnaabe. This time we didn’t need to compile any lists. I was lying in bed one night thinking about my late Granny. I was mulling over what other name I could possible use that was feminine but still a derivative of my Granny’s first name. For some reason, the Anishnaabe word that we have since chosen was clear as day. I instinctively knew that was to be her name. I said it aloud and she twirled in my belly. I think the name came to me because of my Granny.
Now the chosen name has caused some controversy with some, because the name is also used by a successful business in NW Ontario. Which is actually quite ridiculous because the word existed for thousands of years before the business creation. I’ve actually had people laugh at the name because of that. To all of the nay-sayers though, I stick out my tongue and make an obscene gesture with my hand. Classy…I know – but I almost found it offensive that they would laugh at a name that has a such meaning and came to us in a special way. Granted that these people probably did not realize that the name was chosen because of this and perhaps do not fully understand how important a name is to an Anishinaabe person, but it is still important to remain respectful. Seven Grandfather teachings, people! While my blog may be a platform for me to vent about being caught in between worlds (and this topic fits this well), I think that another purpose of the blog is to educate people. If you take anything from this, remember that choosing a name is very personal to parents and a significant amount of thought probably went into that name – regardless of cultural, religious, and racial background. I think what irks me the most is the question – “when did it become so customary to judge?”
Now to put some of your minds at ease, we will be calling her a shortened version of her name so that it is not as identifiable to those in the NW Ontario. Somewhat similar to what Kim or Jen would be in the English language. Her full name will still be what it is, again with an anglicized spelling. I refuse to compromise or bend to insistence that her name be changed. I actually had a colleague (an Arabic one, at that) provide me with the funniest comeback to these people. I almost want someone to say something now just so I can bust it out. With my nerdiness though, I can almost guarantee that it will probably not come out as funny. Maybe I should work on timing and delivery, you never know when I will be asked to be on the newest APTN comedy – ha!