First Nation people are very enthusiastic when it comes to names. We name children these days in meaningful ways to honour the land, animal life and even the heavens. For example, my brother Joe named one of his boys Orion. A creative name that my brother Anthony gave to his son was Ekwan, the name of a major river that is important to our community in Attawapiskat. Many of my relatives have named their young ones Sky, Storm and Ocean, to mention a few.
For Native people names have great meaning and often my people attend traditional ceremonies to receive an Aboriginal name. These naming ceremonies are ancient and relate more to who a person is at their core. Medicine people and Elders are most often involved in helping a person find their name.
However, many First Nation people up the James and Hudson Bay coasts have been taking their names at the direction of Europeans and are influenced by the new religions brought to my people. For instance, my name, Xavier, was given to me in honour of my grandfather. He was named by one of the early Roman Catholic missionaries who worked up the coast. Many of the people I know back home in Attawapiskat and other communities up north have names like Joseph, Anthony, Paul, Mary and Theresa. These names come out of our contact with the church. My late father was named Marius, which has its roots in ancient Rome.
We have our own slant on these Christian names as they are pronounced in the Cree language as Joojep for Joseph, Antwen for Anthony, Many for Mary and Sapiyeh for Xavier just to give you an idea. Non-Native people find this very amusing and comical but it is natural for us. Of course, because we Cree are so humorous we often have nicknames for people depending on specific instances that were noted in their early lives. Often these people with nicknames are never greeted by anyone with this name but they are known among family and friends more by their nickname than the one on their birth certificate. Sometimes these nicknames, although funny, are not so kind or sensitive.
I never really thought about how important names are in handing them down in families until recently. My friends Kathryn and Marc Renaud of Timmins announced they had named their newborn girl Emily Dawn after Kathryn’s aunt Emily McGrath and her grandfather Don Paquette. On hearing of this, many others and I were moved with much emotion. The idea that a little girl was going to be growing up and carrying the name of two wonderful, strong and kind people made an impact on me.
Emily, mother of my best friend Mike, took me under her wing like a mother when I moved south to face the big world and all of its challenges. She was so sweet, kind and intelligent and helped me more than she could ever know. Both she and Don have passed away but their friendship is still in my thoughts. They were positive influences in my life with a move from a remote First Nation to the south. Don and his friend Bernadette were some of the first older friends that reached out to make me feel at home and they encouraged me to go and see as much of the world as I could. They were world travellers and entertained me for hours with their stories of far away places.
Many times in my day a memory or teaching given to me by Emily or Don helps me in some way with a challenge or obstacle. Their spirits are strong ones and they linger in the minds of their family members and friends. More than that, because of the thoughtfulness of Kathryn and Marc Renaud we will all have the pleasure and satisfaction of watching Emily Dawn make her way in the world in the footsteps of two beautiful trailblazers.