Michiana Chronicles - Aotearoa: Restoring Indigenous Names
If you have ever had to change your name or gift someone with a name, you are familiar with the powerful symbolic act of name-altering and name-giving. These days, married and divorced couples, parents, nonbinary and transgender people are perhaps most familiar with these acts which are regimented by tradition, imposed by national standards, and influenced by individual history. Names are markers of gratitude, connections to cultural heritage, genealogy, and loved ones, as well as aspirations and powerful statements.
Names are sacrosanct. Early anthropologists mistakenly assumed that some Indigenous populations were too primitive to name their kins. In fact, names and other taboo information were kept secret from these outsiders. Names affect social interactions. If you are Korean, your parents may have named you based on a generation poem specific to your own lineage. Your first or second first name is then a tell-tale sign of the generation to which you belong, which comes with its social implications when you rank as junior or senior in a group. Nowadays, owning a piece of ID with one’s chosen name can be a significant part of one’s transitioning for nonbinary and transgender people. It is also synonymous with greater safety and access to basic services. According to the 2015 Transgender Survey published by the National Center for Transgender Equality, “As a result of showing an ID with a name or gender that did not match their gender presentation, 25% of people were verbally harassed, 16% were denied services or benefits, 9% were asked to leave a location or establishment, and 2% were assaulted or attacked." Names are rich in stories of how cultural barriers are crossed. Parents may ask members of the clergy or elders to choose an American name for their children when they immigrate. That is exactly how my spouse inherited a Hebrew name. A minister thought he would empower the shy, Korean immigrant boy that my spouse was at the time by giving him the name of a high priest and powerful orator: Aaron, the elder brother of Moses. My first and last name echo those of the neo-realist Italian actress Anna Magnani who was labelled by film historian Barry Monush as “the volcanic earth mother of all Italian cinema.” She was the antithesis of such contemporaries as Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn: no frills, combative, and raw. As a child, I could grasp the appeal of this force of nature, but I was ambivalent about what was expected of me through this name. Many countries impose strict rules on the naming of their citizens. From 1803 to1966, French parents could only name their children after Christian saints. If they did not, their child could be denied identity papers by the authorities. This Napoleonic law was successfully overturned by a M et Mme le Goarnic of Brittany who gave regional Celtic names to their twelve children. Names offer powerful testimonies of the rejection of disempowering social contracts and their related ideologies. In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson tells us about Harold and Linda Hale who grew up in America during the Jim Crow era. In the 1970s, they gave their daughter simply Miss as a first name to ensure that she would never be refused a title that Black women were historically denied. Whether we love, value, dislike, reject, or are indifferent to our given names, we all recognize that they are a powerful part of our identity along with tangible ties to the history of the world around us.
Names of places too are anchored in evolving historical narratives. They carry a history of erasure and renaming linked to colonization, wars, and independence. Oftentimes, the naming of places during colonization has more to do with the national allegiance of European explorers and settlers than with their actual geographical locations and the genealogical ties these places still hold for their Indigenous communities. On June 2, 2022, with 70,000 signatures in hand, the Māori Party petitioned Parliament to rename New Zealand by its original Indigenous name, Aotearoa. The petition also aims to restore te reo Māori names of all cities, towns, and places by 2026. This is not the first time that restoring the country’s name was raised. Te reo Māori, the Māori language, became an official language of New Zealand along with New Zealand sign language in 1987 and 2006 respectively. English is the prominent language, a de facto official language since it is spoken by over 95% of the population. For the past two decades, “Aotearoa” has been widely used in the media, it is featured on passports and the national currency. When asked if the time is right to restore of the country’s original name as New Zealanders attempt to recover from the pandemic in an interview with ABC News Australia (September 15, 2021), Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngawera-Packer retorted that necessary conversations are seldom perceived as timely. They are nevertheless related to the social inequities faced in Aotearoa New Zealand during the pandemic since these inequities are steeped in the country’s history of colonization. In a recent article in The Guardian (August 21, 2022), she added, “We’re continually pushing and reminding our nation to remember that it is one thing to make te reo Māori our official language, but it is another thing to commit to bringing it to life and the stories and histories attached."
As an American citizen and an immigrant from the South of France, Ngawera-Packer’s controversial sense of timeliness resonates with me. In 2016, the Native American Tourism and Improving Visitor Experience Act (the NATIVE Act) allowed for more bilingual signage on state roads along Native American lands. In a 2016 article, Jessica Robinson, the Deputy Director of the Seneca Nation of Indian Department of Transportation asserts: "Language is integral to Native culture, history and future. Signage is one facet or tool in preserving language as well as to educate the public and acknowledge Tribe's connection to the land as well as their sovereignty as nations across the country” . In the 1990s, after a revitalization of regional dialects mainly in Provence (where I was born), Brittany, Corsica, and the Basque region, signage designating towns, cities, and rivers became bilingual: French name on top and regional dialect below. In 2019, regional authorities, successfully opposed by mayors, argued against the bilingual signage in the Vaucluse where I grew up in part because it confused tourists.. Nevertheless, the signage indicating the city limits which reads “À bèn lèu” – ie. “see you soon” in Provençal – still stands.
Yes, À bèn lèu here and across the globe for cross-cultural conversations about the naming of places as locations of erasure, resilience, cultural heritage, and the commitment to partnership and inclusive storytelling.
Music: Les musiciens de Provence, Branle Gay