Our Names, Our Selves

Feb 15th, 2008 | By | Category: 19-3: Beyond Our Names: Uncovering Identity, Editor's Essay
By Tina Deschenie

In our deepest intelligence we know this: that names and being are indivisible. That which has no name cannot truly be said to exist, to be. That which bears a name bears being as well. I have a name; therefore I am…

The names at first are those of animals and of birds, of objects that have one definition in the eye, another in the hand, of forms and features on the rim of the world, or of sounds that carry on the bright wind and in the void.

– N. Scott Momaday

In this digital age of multiple names and forms of identity, it is getting easier and easier to dismiss the time-honored significance of one’s name as an immutable aspect of one’s identity. Many of us now have our given name, often a marital name (if we’re women), nicknames, perhaps a given name for ceremonial purposes, an internet name or names, even an Avatar’s name, if we’re into cyberworld.

In past generations, among us Native people, names were indeed powerful and sacred, as Joye Braun describes in her article. Back home when Diné babies are born they need a ceremony to introduce them to the sacred beings. Later ceremonies held at a first laugh or at puberty create further sacred identifications.

Similarly, other Native people conduct naming ceremonies where babies or young people or even adults are introduced to their community in a ritual manner. Our ancestors often renamed people several times as they proved themselves at different stages in their lifetimes.

Even in 2008, over 20 years after my grandfather passed on, his name gains me entrance to certain households. Howella Polacca was Hopi, but he had Diné names, acquired through his marriage to Ruth Arviso, my Diné grandmother.


TA’NEESZAHNII WOMEN. Photos from left: The editor and her daughter, Tasha (1995). Ruth Arviso Polacca, the editor’s grandmother. The editor’s daughters: Dez and Tasha (2007).

When I have sought help among wise elders in my tribe, I have recited the names and clans of my grandparents. My grandfather’s name instantly recalls stories and smiles amongst the elderly who knew him, and they extend their respect for him in hospitality to me. It is evident that he worked for all people, not just for himself or for his family, or only for the Hopi.

Today some people get out there in business or in public life seeking to make a name solely for themselves. Yet, they could expand their purpose by asking, “What should I do to honor the gifts I’ve been given, the strengths I’ve developed, or the goods I’ve acquired?”

To act with such questions in mind is a challenge, but it can also bring one to the humble realization that one’s life’s work as a Native person is done also for the people. And one’s good name is, in no small way, the gift of a people, too. In a way, all of the stories in this issue touch on this.

Our writers talk about the names of our tribal colleges, all of which invoke incredible pride. They also explore the ways in which the tribal colleges strive to uphold the teachings of their peoples, while also providing quality higher education. The leaders at these colleges must juggle a lot in their daily work. The Anishinaabe language immersion program at Bay Mills Community College is helping students learn the old names for almost everything.

United Tribes Technical College President David M. Gipp writes on his stand against the Fighting Sioux mascot at the University of North Dakota. He has been at it for over 14 years; in this case, both name and identity are at stake.

Also, two remarkable young men, Karl Duncan and Elijah Hopkins, president and vice president respectively of the AIHEC Student Congress, are profiled – theirs are names to remember.

Definitely take the time to read the Resource Guide written by Dr. Cornel Pewewardy on linguistic imperialism. As an act of resistance and self-determination, tribal people and entities have renamed themselves using their traditional tribal names.

In the worldwide arena, the original inhabitants of many lands have named themselves Indigenous Peoples and thus formed a bond that transcends cultures. Together, they fought for over 25 years to achieve the victory that they won last fall when the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was at last adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. The declaration affirms the collective human rights of Indigenous peoples across a broad range of areas including self-determination, spirituality, land rights, and rights to intellectual property.

The vote was 143 in favor, 4 opposed, and 11 abstaining. The four countries who voted against the declaration: the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Indigenous representatives from the North American Region provided a statement to the world community. An excerpt follows:

It is a great day when Indigenous Peoples can be counted among all the other Peoples on Mother Earth. Today at the United Nations, States have finally recognized what we have always known – We are Peoples, equal in all ways to all other Peoples, with inherent and inalienable rights to our survival, our way of life, lands and self-determination.

We Indigenous Peoples of this land are part of Creation, in the homelands we inherited from our ancestors. We understand from our original teachings that we are meant to live in harmony with all Creation and with other Peoples, including with those who came to our homelands seeking a better life for themselves and their children. Our Nations entered into sacred Treaties with them…

But today, with the adoption of this Declaration …we see the opportunity for a new beginning, for another kind of relationship with States in North America and indeed throughout the world.”

The work of the Indigenous people – indeed, their name even – creates a sweet sound that carries on the bright wind everywhere.

Tina Deschenie (Diné/Hopi) worked in Indian education prior to joining the Tribal College Journal as editor in 2006. Deschenie is the mother of three grown children: her son, Troy, and her two daughters Dez and Tasha. She also has one grandson, Ty.

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