Doug George-Kanentiio: Mohawks must reclaim powerful names

The administration and community building of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe of New York. Photo by P199 via Wikimedia Commons

The Power of Names
By Doug George-Kanentiio

Fundamental to the well being of all humans is the need to identify oneself with a specific name and to have that name acknowledged within the family, the clan and the community. To assume a name is to assert individuality, to express uniqueness, to affirm continuity. What we are becomes who we are.

Communal names are equally important as they are an essential element within any specific culture. Names may be extracted from geography, events or individuals but they are a vital part of the collective sense of awareness and form a bond by which individuals within that community have their own place and meaning. We must all belong and names help us make a distinction between the "we" and the "them."

Communal names have economic, social, historical and political power. New York City has deep meaning and resonates well in contrast to places like Beaverlick, Kentucky or Toad Suck, Arkansas. Selecting a name like Washington to become the capital of a new American nation was a wise choice unlike Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (formerly Saigon). Names lend themselves to harmony: cities such as Ottawa, Ontario, Canada (versus Ashgabat or Tecgucigalpa) which goes a long way in deterring the character of life of its residents.

Our ancestors knew this and were poetic in their application of names: Oswegatchie, Niagara, Kawenoke, Gananoque, Toronto.

When we abandon our aboriginal names we lose much of our power. Our connection with place is disrupted, our knowledge as to place is breached, our sense of connectedness severed. One of the tactics used by the colonial powers across the planet was to replace our names with nonsensical British Columbia or Pennsylvania versus Saskatchewan, Minnesota, Kentucky or Manitoba.

Here at Akwesasne we have struggled with names. We have been more fortunate than other Native communities in that our ancestors kept the language alive and vibrant across the generations. They also worked with the record keepers to insure that a comprehensive written form of Mohawk was used and the Native names and clan affiliations preserved.

Still, there were serious problems with names. For many decades the name of our community-Akwesasne-was obscured and suppressed Not until the arrival of Ray Fadden-Tehanetorens in the 1930's was Akwesasne as a definer applied to us all. We were, until the 1960's, something odd, the St. Regis Indians, both names of which are incorrect, deceptive and lies.

We shouldn't cover our selves with lies.

There is no such thing, no people, who can truthfully say they are St. Regis Indians or St. Regis Mohawks. We don't belong to St. Regis. We are not Indians. We are the far more powerful Onkweh, the Kanienkeha, the Rotinosionni. Of this earth, by this earth, with this earth.

Who exactly is Regis and why is he a saint? We know the flesh and blood man was born in 1597 in a town called Fontcouverte in the French province of Languedoc north of the Pyrenees mountains to a "noble class" family.

His true name was Jean Francois Regis, nor John Francis.

He elected to become a priest at the age of 19 because he had, according to catholic.org, a "holy hatred of himself" which was reflected in his vows of poverty and chastity. He became a Jesuit priest at the age of 31 and desperately wanted to become a missionary to the Iroquois (we were then considered the most cruel and yet the most intellectual of all Natives). When his application to come to our country was delayed he devoted himself to converting to Protestants, administering to prostitutes and caring for orphans. He punished his body so badly that he caught pneumonia and died at the age of 43.

Regis was made a saint in 1737 and assigned June 16. His life of denial, his feeling that he was sinful and this earth was a cursed place was in such contrast with the traditional values of the Onkwe that we have nothing in common with him other than our humanity.

What does Regis have to do with Akwesasne? Nothing except that his "feast day" may have been when the Jesuits Gourdon and Billiard arrived at Akwesasne in 1754 and decided that June 16 would be the official beginning of the mission then used Regis' interest in the Iroquois to give their efforts more authority.

So why keep that name? Why do we refuse to relinquish the colonial embrace? It happens when we are compelled to step away from the past and redefine our identity by giving life to the old names, never a simple thing to do when one has been made to feel defensive about our heritage. It can be terrifying to some and to others it uncovers a reservoir of guilt and shame.

Should one be embarrassed using the term St. Regis? Yes, especially if that name continues to cause harm which it does since its intent was to destroy our traditional ways, our aboriginal spirituality, our sense of pride and dignity.

Many other Native people have tackled this problem and succeeded in casting off names of oppression. Witness the Tohono O'dham discarding the insulting name Papago, the Ho Chunks throwing away Winnebego, the Miami using Myaamia or the Eskimo refuting that pejorative for Inuit.

Speak the truth, use the name, empower the people.

It should be the Kaienke Nation Council, the Kanienke Council of Akwesasne, the Kanienke who reside to the south of Akwesasne and were once the "St. Regis Tribe."

Doug George-Kanentiio is an Akwesasne Mohawk currently residing on Oneida Territory with his wife Joanne Shenandoah.

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