I seem to be harking back on my heritage a lot this week, but that’s how it goes sometimes I guess. When I was doing research for my book Arctic Destiny, I came across so many interesting and difficult to read stories, and much of what I read stuck with me. And there were times were I found myself pondering similarities between the Inuit experience and that of the slaves brought to the new world. While the Inuit had to put up with interlopers coming onto their land and insisting on changing their way of life, the slaves were taken away from their homelands and thrust into an entirely new, and horrific, way of life. But in both cases these groups of people lost their names.
In an effort to control, the slaves were stripped of everything that reminded them of where they came from, and who they were before they were stolen. They were separated from their tribesmen and women, given new, Western-style names. Children born to a slave mother were also given a name by the slave master, with no record of a father and no surname.
In an effort to control, the Inuit were given numbers and told that they must guard them with all care, as though those numbers held greater weight than their traditional, ancestral-based names.
Eventually, as time passed, the slave masters were told to prepare for emancipation by registering all their slaves by name—first and last. Some gave all their slaves their own surname, one last act of ownership in my opinion; others simply picked names seemingly from the air. Some were honest enough to recognise the children they had fathered, others didn’t care to. Who would make them?
Far later, in the 1970s, the Canadian government decided the Inuit must have surnames, although that was never a part of their culture. Again, it was to make them easier to track, and control. During this time many of the Inuit first names were misspelled, distorted and twisted to fit norms that had nothing to do with their culture. Even the ancestors of Europeans, who knew the last names those men carried and tried to use them, often ended up with something that bore little or no resemblance to the original name, since the people recording them didn’t take the differences in pronunciation into account.
Around the same time, many descendants of slave in the Americas were going through a period of reclaiming the heritage they’d been stripped of. Of course, there was no way to know exactly what tribe you were descended from, where in Africa, exactly, your ancestors had lived. There could only be a blanket acceptance of African culture, a taking on board of enough to give a sense of belonging. Strange new names began turning up in black communities across the western world, names that were derided and ridiculed, but that were intended to form a bond between that child and something bigger and better than the reality it was born to.
Full circle, for the Inuit have been reclaiming their names, having misspellings corrected, taking back not just their names but the meanings, the symbolism of them. They already knew the traditional names had meanings far beyond the understanding of those who so carelessly mangled them. That the bestowing of those names was a link to, and bond with the past—to something important, bigger than the present reality.
Neither of these stories are unique. The movement, subjugation and control of people has been going on since the dawn of man. In fact, what it shows is that if you look deep enough we, collectively, are more alike than it might first appear.