Monique Keiran: Colonial renaming obscured cultures

When University of Victoria anthropology and computer science students joined forces in 2011 with the Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group out of Ladysmith and local elders to develop a video game, they were furthering the concept that names confer power and presence.

In the game, players embark on a virtual journey through Coast Salish landscapes, exploring uses of the land, historic place names and traditional knowledge through video, audio, maps and photographs. Based on an earlier board game developed by the treaty group, the game serves as a step toward reclaiming culture, history and presence in the region.

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It followed two significant events in which First Nations cultural geography on the coast was reclaimed. In 2009, B.C.’s Queen Charlotte Islands were officially renamed Haida Gwaii as part of a historic reconciliation agreement between the province and the Haida Nation, and in 2010, the waters off the province’s south coast became known officially as the Salish Sea.

Last year, the progression toward reclamation took another step. Local First Nations publicly proclaimed Pkols as the original name of Mount Douglas, a site of cultural significance. They held a ceremony on the mountain and commemorated the mountain’s deep roots in their history with a carved cedar sign near the summit. They have submitted a formal request to B.C.’s Geographic Names Office to have the old name reinstated.

They also announced plans to reclaim Mount Newton within their historical and cultural geography of place names. The mountain, or ?Au,welnew (place of refuge), is sacred as the site where the Saanich people escaped a great flood about 10,000 years ago.

Names are much more than mere labels. They signify culture and history. They indicate relationships and responsibilities between people and provide glimpses into long-held knowledge. They denote connections between people and places.

Benign or otherwise, renaming causes what existed before to be filtered through a new lens. It can obscure prior relationships, and even erase them.

This happened at places such as Halifax’s Pier 21 and New York’s Ellis Island, two major ports at which newcomers to Canada and the U.S. arrived in North America. A century ago, when newcomers arriving by ship from Europe registered with immigration officials, some emerged from the experience with names spelled differently than before. In some cases, they received entirely new names on their immigration documents, wiping out links to previous lives.

In another, more egregious example, the Canadian government replaced the names of its Inuit citizens with numbers. Today we all carry around multiple number-identities — social insurance numbers, personal health-care numbers, numerous personal-identification numbers and so on — but each of those numbers links to our names. During much of the 20th century, numbers served as both beginning and end of an Inuit person’s official identity. The system denied these people their right to self-identify and to the heritage inherent within names.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which held its closing events early this month, heard accounts of how First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were separated from their families and forced to attend residential schools.

These children were often beaten for speaking their native languages, they were indoctrinated in new faiths and world views and they were given new names. Over decades, the identities of thousands of individuals were systematically reworked, and entire generations’ sense of history, culture and belonging was erased.

Many early B.C. leaders contributed to the rubbing out of First Nations’ presence on the land. Explorers, fur traders, gold hunters and government officials overwrote the cultural significance of locations with allusions instead to places in their own homelands, to people and events of European significance, or even to their colleagues, wives and friends.

Despite such colonial denial, versions of some original place names endured. On southern Vancouver Island, for example, places such as Quamichan (Kwa’mutsun), Cowichan (Quwutsun), Saanich (Wsanec), Sooke (T’Sou-ke), and Nanaimo (Snuneymuxw) echo the pre-existing roots of Coast Salish histories and geographies, albeit twisted in pronunciation and spelling.

But as B.C.’s First Nations reclaim their languages, place names and lands, official names in the province will shift back to their eons-old networks of identity, histories, relationships and cultures.

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