Some of the most precious memories I have as a mom are the days each of my children received their spirit names. The ceremony, feast and celebration were unlike anything I’d ever experienced. From the moment my husband and I presented our elder with tobacco to ask her to lead us in our journey for our son and then, three years later, for our daughter, I immediately felt empowered and whole.
That’s the power names can have. After all, they are how we become known to the world. In countless different cultures, parents pass down the same name—or variations of names—through generations, and this lays a foundation of our identity in terms of heritage, culture, race and often geographical roots. With a sense of optimism, belonging and cultural pride, we put so much thought and care into naming our children. And for many Indigenous, First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples, variations of a customary tradition known as the naming ceremony is a momentous family occasion. This essential cultural practice of establishing the identity of a new baby was—and is—integral to our familial bonding and establishing kinship with our community.
For centuries, however, First Peoples were forced to follow Anglo-Saxon naming principles, complete with Anglicized surnames. We were forbidden to give our children traditional names in our own languages, and traditional names were stripped from those who already had them. The use of Indigenous spelling, syllabics or characters in names was not permitted by church and state, nor was the speaking of one’s own language or practising other clan/nation traditions. This, of course, has had a devastating effect on kinship and the general well-being of our family units, extended families and communities. Reclaiming these practices does not go without healing from the generational effects of oppression through colonialism. And while there is a powerful resurgence of cultural traditions happening across Turtle Island (North America), along with that comes the underbelly mixed bag of blood, bone and tradition.
39 great Indigenous stories to read and share with your kidsMy children are a part of the seventh-generation uprising—their generation and those yet unborn—who are reclaiming their fundamental human rights in connection to family, heritage and lineage, regardless of these attempts to assimilate Indigenous peoples into YT (white) “society.” I can’t speak to how or what other nations do, but I can share a bit about what has been taught and passed on to me from an Anishinaabe perspective.
A naming ceremony has some similarities to baptisms or baby showers, but with fewer gifts and more food. It’s when a child—not necessarily a baby—receives their spirit name from an elder or traditional practitioner. The name is chosen through a spiritual, faith-based practice wherein the practitioner fasts, dreams and prays for the spirit name to come to them from the spirit world. This realm is where the wisdom and love of our ancestors lives on, connected to the spirits of animals in a familial way. The spirit name often comes to the elder or practitioner through dreams, which they examine to find deeper meaning and definition of the name to accompany the oral translation of that name.
With a spirit name, parts of a child’s personality and true identity are revealed through the meaning of their names, which have an ancestral connection to the land. These meanings also outline what our children might be challenged by in life, what their strengths and weaknesses will likely be, and what some of their responsibilities will be as stewards to the land and continuing on a good path in life. When we learned the stories and meanings behind our children’s names, we were given a foundation from our ancestors, which helps us better support them throughout their childhood, teen and even adult years. Equally important, a spirit name fosters a child’s connection to all of creation—the land, the animals, the air, the water. Just as our ancestors are related to the spirits of animals in the spirit realm, we are related to all of creation on Earth.
Whenever I share about anything culturally traditional, it is important for me to be transparent about my connections, since I can’t precisely place nation, territory nor clan to my own name. I didn’t have a naming ceremony. I wasn’t able to be enriched by my own cultural and ancestral heritage, kinship, governing systems and philosophies. And I cannot fully reclaim something that is connected to a person I cannot find.
This can be shaky ground for someone like me. I am of mixed roots, and my Indigenous lineage comes from my biological father, whom I have never met. Indigenous nations often claim those of us who have been uprooted from our biological families into their own loving families and communities. And while I have been welcomed by my chosen Anishinaabe family, this process is still deeply personal and private to me, as this is where my spiritual and cognitive connection to cultural teachings and traditions have been firmly rooted from carefully planted seeds for more than a decade now.
I raged and mourned my own loss of connection as I planned and celebrated my own children’s naming ceremonies. Yet being able to manifest this powerful foundation of identity for my own children moved me out of anger and mourning into a place of celebration, community healing and knowledge, which illustrates how omnipotent a name can be. In fact, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 17th call to action, which was issued in 2015, demanded that all institutions—government, academia and otherwise—facilitate residential school survivors and their families to reclaim the names that were stripped from them. This means First Nations, Métis and Inuit people can return to traditional names. No surname required. TRC also stated that fees associated with having identification records changed would be waived for five years. To date, however, only the Northwest Territories and Ontario have implemented these changes.
A naming ceremony is extremely sacred, and whatever I share with you can only be a brief overview, as not all elements of Indigenous teachings are meant to be shared. The impact of having a spirit name has already had a profound effect on me, my kids, our mixed and extended family, our chosen family and our community. I was humble and vibrating with emotion that day when we presented our elder with tobacco. (Tobacco is one of the four sacred medicines and is used in prayer, offerings, requests and ceremony.) As is also customary in Anishinaabe tradition, that elder then fasts, often out on the land, out in the bush, for extended periods of time, to find clarity and connection to the spirit world. Our elder took incredible time and care studying her dreams to connect the dots between the symbolic visuals to see how each of my children are resolutely connected to all of creation in their own unique, powerful and special ways.
It took several months for our first-born’s name to arrive, similarly so with our daughter. On the actual naming ceremony day, our little ones were uplifted by friends, chosen sponsors for the child (similar to godparents but without the religious hierarchy) and extended family and community, led by our traditional practitioner. We chose to use our children’s spirit names as their middle name, but parents have the choice: first, second or middle name—it can all come from a place of pride and love, knowing that this traditional name protects our children and is a powerful connection for them to the spirit world, from which they came and where they will one day return to.
My son’s spirit name is Nighanagiizhig (Anishinaabemowin for Leader From the Sky). Or “first one through the wormhole,” as my husband likes to say, with the amused approval of our elder. I have given up counting how many times the power of this name shines through to show me his depth of character, his personality, what makes him tick, where he is strong and where he needs extra support. His name means that he carries the wisdom of the Seven Grandfather Teachings with him, to grow with him as he broadens his own understanding of these teachings. Part of his responsibility associated with his name is that with this wisdom that he carries comes the duty to lead and teach others anchored by these philosophies. Big shoes to fill, indeed. Good thing he was born that way.
My daughter’s name is Zhaawanong Ghiizhgookwe (Anishinaabemowin for Awakening Skyewoman). Like lightning from the sky, this one is full of sweet love, fire and unabashed fearlessness. Again, those who know our daughter know she drips of honey, juxtaposed with the occasional dragon-mode. I have met my match, and the ancestors must know that this sort of strength is an unreachable trait and have faith in my shape-shifting mama skills. Part of her path in life is that of revolutionary firecracker. It’s not up to us, her parents, to tame her, but to provide her a healthy path in life to help show her where her spark will be best served. In fact, it’s been equally about her showing us the power of embracing the uncomfortable.
There is a lot more to each of their names and the stories associated with them that connect them to integral philosophies and are meant to help guide them along in life, similar to the relationship they are meant to have with—and they way they’ll be nurtured by—the sponsors we chose for each of them. It’s felt incredible to surround our children with their sponsors and the guidance of an elder, as these roles fulfil kinship practices that church and state tried to exterminate. We have grown their family, their community and their support system to represent the diverse and dynamic personalities they’ll need access to, because as they say, it takes a village, and our children deserve and depend on the enrichment that comes from their cultural traditions, governing systems and philosophies.
A multidisciplinary creative professional and artisan, Selena Mills has over 10 years of experience writing and editing for acclaimed publications, B2B and NFP content creation, social management, brand building, design and VA services. Passionate about elevating Indigenous and First Nation, Métis and Inuit stories, perspectives and voices in digital media, she strives to build bridges renegade-style.