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'It is who I am': Nehiyaw woman reclaims her Indigenous name as part of her identity

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2021-06-21 Theresa Kliem
a woman smiling for the camera: Omeasoo Wāhpāsiw is an assistant professor at the faculty of education at the University of Prince Edward Island. The Nehiyaw woman's first name, Omeasoo, is a common last name, she says, but also serves as a first name for Indigenous women. © Kristy McKinney Omeasoo Wāhpāsiw is an assistant professor at the faculty of education at the University of Prince Edward Island. The Nehiyaw woman's first name, Omeasoo, is a common last name, she says, but also serves as a first name for Indigenous women.

Omeasoo Wāhpāsiw never stopped belonging to Treaty 6 territory.

The assistant professor from the University of Prince Edward Island doesn't live in Saskatchewan anymore, but she will always be a Nehiyaw (Cree) person.

"Having my name as a symbol of my social world and who I am and how I signify myself to others is absolutely embracing that ancestry and legacy of my ancestors on Treaty 6 territory," said Wāhpāsiw, whose mother is from Saddle Lake Cree Nation.

However, it wasn't until she was 34 years old that Wāhpāsiw officially reclaimed her name. 

Name change

As a child all her official documents would carry the first name Kirsten. Wāhpāsiw didn't like her legal name, she says, and kept complaining to her parents about it. 

"Literally nobody called me Kirsten my entire life because my parents called me Omeasoo," Wāhpāsiw said. "It didn't make any sense to me."

As an adult she learned that Kirsten was connected to Norwegian roots on her father's side, but she didn't grow up with any sort of Norwegian culture, she says.

"I just wasn't called that, I am not Kirsten."

In addition to Omeasoo, the Nehiyaw woman also started the process of changing her last name from Butt to Wāhpāsiw, which connects her with her mother's ancestors. 

Wāhpāsiw refers to something light-coloured, Wāhpāsiw says.

"I had a colleague at the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations who was always telling me it means white swan," said Wāhpāsiw.

"I have light skin, and some of my family have light skin. So it was more accurate."


Video: Ottawa allows Indigenous people to reclaim birth names on official documents (cbc.ca)

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'It's a beautiful name'

While it is not necessary in her culture to have two names, she loves hers.

The only thing she would change now is switching the capitalization into lowercase, Wāhpāsiw says, because it would be more accurate in terms of the Nehiyaw language.

Changing her names six years ago was very important to the University of Prince Edward Island professor.

"It is who I am," she said.

"As a child and growing up it never occurred to me, really, that it was strange or excessive to be demanding [to be called Omeasoo]. … It was just my name. It's a beautiful name."

Meeting others who are also called Omeasoo is special for Wāhpāsiw because it's something that connects her with people and shows that Indigenous parents are reclaiming their language by giving their children Indigenous names.

Traditional names on government IDs

Last week the federal government announced that Indigenous people can now apply to reclaim their traditional names on passports and other government ID, responding to a 2015 call to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

According to the government, all fees will be waived for the name-changing process.

It's a good step, Wāhpāsiw says, but also a reminder of the decades of colonialism in Canada.

"The idea of us naming ourselves is like the least … that the government of Canada can do," she said.

"The world I want to be in is one where Indigenous peoples name ourselves from the get-go and recognize our language and our connections to our ancestors, so that we therefore signify to the people around us — to the world around us — that no matter what, we're still here."

Officially changing a name is not that easy, Wāhpāsiw says, since many documents need to be changed and agencies need to be informed.

Lost names of children who died at residential schools

However, some Indigenous people don't have the opportunity anymore to reclaim their traditional names and languages, including the children who died at residential schools across Canada.

"Their identities are unknown, let alone their names," Wāhpāsiw said. "It's just so sad and heartbreaking."

Today, the minimum Canadians can do to respect Indigenous people is to learn how to say their names properly, she says.

"Don't expect them to change them," Wāhpāsiw said.

With files from Saskatoon Morning

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