Michiana Chronicles – Aotearoa: Restoration of Native Names
If you’ve ever had to change your name or give someone a name, you know the powerful symbolic act of renaming and giving a name. Today, married and divorced couples, parents, non-binary and transgender people are perhaps the most familiar with these acts governed by tradition, imposed by national norms and influenced by individual history. Names are markers of gratitude, connections to cultural heritage, genealogy and loved ones, as well as powerful aspirations and declarations.
Names are sacred. Early anthropologists incorrectly assumed that some indigenous people were too primitive to name their relatives. 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 generational poem specific to your own lineage. Your first or middle name is then a telltale sign of which generation you belong to, which has its social implications when you classify yourself as junior or senior in a group. Nowadays, owning an ID with the chosen name can be an important part of transitioning for non-binary and transgender people. It is also synonymous with greater security and access to basic services. According to 2015 Transgender Survey published by the National Center for Transgender Equality, “Due to presenting ID with a name or gender that did not match their gender presentation, 25% of people were verbally harassed, 16% have been denied services or benefits, 9% have been asked to leave a place or establishment, and 2% have been assaulted or attacked.” The names are rich with stories of how cultural barriers are crossed. Parents can ask clergy or elders to choose an American name for their children when they immigrate. That’s exactly how my wife inherited a Hebrew name. A minister thought he would empower the shy Korean immigrant boy that my wife was at the time by naming him after a high priest and a powerful orator: Aaron, the older brother of Moses. My first and last name echo those of Italian neo-realist actress Anna Magnani, described by film historian Barry Monush as “the volcanic mother earth of all Italian cinema”. She was the antithesis of contemporaries like Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn: no frills, combative and raw. through this name. . Many countries impose strict rules on the names of their citizens. From 1803 to 1966, French parents could only name their children after Christian saints. If they failed to do so, their child could be denied identity papers by the authorities. This Napoleonic law was successfully annulled by a Mr. and Mrs. le Goarnic from Brittany who gave their twelve children regional Celtic names, strong evidence of the rejection of disempowering social contracts and the ideologies that accompany them. Caste: the origins of our discontent, Isabel Wilkerson tells us about Harold and Linda Hale who grew up in America during the Jim Crow era. In the 1970s, they simply gave their daughter Miss as a first name to ensure she would never be denied a title that was historically denied to black women. Whether we like, appreciate, dislike, reject, or are indifferent to our first names, we all recognize that they are a powerful part of our identity as well as tangible connections to the history of the world around us.
Place names are also embedded in evolving historical narratives. They carry a history of erasure and renaming linked to colonization, wars and independence. Often, the naming of places during colonization has more to do with the national allegiance of European explorers and settlers than with their actual geographic location and the genealogical ties those places still have to their native communities. On June 2, 2022, with 70,000 signatures in hand, the Maori party petitioned Parliament to rename New Zealand to its original Aboriginal name, Aotearoa. The petition also seeks to restore the te reo Māori names of all cities, towns and places by 2026. This is not the first time that the restoration of the country’s name has been mooted. Te reo Māori, the Maori language, became an official language of New Zealand along with New Zealand Sign Language in 1987 and 2006 respectively. English is the dominant language, a de facto official language since it is spoken by more than 95% of the population. Over the past two decades, “Aotearoa” has been widely used in the media, it appears on passports and national currency. When asked if now is the time to restore the country’s original name as New Zealanders try to recover from the pandemic in an interview with ABC News Australia (September 15, 2021), the co-leader Maori party Debbie Ngawera-Packer countered that necessary conversations are rarely seen as timely. They are nevertheless linked to the social inequalities encountered in Aotearoa in New Zealand during the pandemic since these inequalities are rooted in the history of the country’s colonization. In a recent article by The Guardian (August 21, 2022), she added: “We keep pushing and reminding our nation to remember that it is one thing to make te reo Māori our official language, but it is another to commit to bringing it to life and the stories and stories attached.”
As an American citizen and an immigrant from southern France, Ngawera-Packer’s controversial sense of timeliness resonates with me. In 2016, the Native American Tourism and Visitor Experience Enhancement Act (the NATIVE Act) authorized more bilingual signage on state highways along Native American lands. In a 2016 article, Jessica Robinson, Deputy Director of the Department of Transportation for the Seneca Nation of Indian, states, “Language is integral to Indigenous culture, history and future. Signage is one facet or tool to preserve language as well as to educate the public. and recognize the tribe’s connection to the land as well as their sovereignty as nations across the land.” . In the 1990s, after a revitalization of regional dialects mainly in Provence (where I was born), Brittany, Corsica and the Basque Country, signage designating towns and rivers became bilingual: French name at the top and regional dialect downstairs. In 2019, regional authorities, successfully fought by mayors, argued against bilingual signage in the Vaucluse where I grew up partly because it confused tourists. “see you soon” in Provençal – still stands.
Yes, À bèn lèu here and around the world for cross-cultural conversations about naming places as places of erasure, resilience, cultural heritage, and commitment to partnership and inclusive storytelling.
Music: The musicians of Provence, Branle Gay