Denesuline family challenges N.W.T. legislation to use traditional names

Nine of the 11 official languages in the N.W.T. are Indigenous.

Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ May Talbot sits at the kitchen table and proudly draws the meaning of her and her little sister’s Náʔël’s name.

Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ translated from Chipewyan means “when the sun peaks through” while Náʔël’s is a word to “describe caribou crossing a river.”

“I like my name because it’s different and no one else has it,” Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ said.

Her mother, Shëné Gahdële-Valpy, believes traditional names tie an individual to their culture and teachings. After all, she sought guidance from her own mother – a fluent language speaker – when deciding on names for her daughters.

“In regards to Náʔël, it seemed like it was important, because having her carry that name means the words are not lost,” Gahdële-Valpy said.

“We don’t use that word anymore because of the declining numbers and caribou, but this little girl carries it around like a badge.”

Proper pronunciation

At seven-years-old Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ enjoys teaching others the proper pronunciation of her name.

“It makes me happy because they are saying it right,” Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ said. “I’m fine when they aren’t saying it right, but sometimes I correct them.”

While there’s pride in having traditional Denesųłıné names, there’s also challenges for a bureaucratic system to recognize the proper spelling of names with traditional accents and symbols.

“Every time I have to write out their name on a legal document it’s doesn’t feel right,” Gahdële-Valpy said.

“Having to explain to my daughters, this is how I have to write it on papers, because they questioned why am I writing it wrong kind of hurts my feelings.”

Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation

Gahdële-Valpy is a Yellowknife resident and member of the Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation.

Since 2014, she’s petitioned the territorial government to recognize the traditional spelling of her children’s names on legal documents like their birth certificates and passports.

So far, she said she’s received political lip service with no tangible results.

Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ’s name contains a glottal stop – a crucial indicator in understanding a type of sound used in several Dene languages.

Since the government only allows the Roman alphabet to be used on official documents her name is spelled incorrectly.

“With that you still can’t use the proper spelling and so you’re still losing the whole meaning of the name,” Gahdële-Valpy said.

Official documents

She said she’s been told by territorial politicans that allowing special characters on official documents would be too complex and cumbersome for aviation transportation, which requires the spelling of names to match their own systems.

“It says everywhere how important it is to reclaim the language and this is a step to do it through our birth certificates,” she said. “Essentially it just comes down to technical and financial roadblocks.”

Of 11 official languages in the N.W.T. nine are Indigenous.

After Gahdële-Valpy lodged her complaint in 2016, Health and Social Services Minister Glen Abernethy promised new legislative changes to the Vital Statistics Act permitting the use of Indigenous characters on territorial identification documents.

But Gahdële-Valpy’s fight was far from over.

In 2019, she wrote a letter asking MLAs to support her campaign and for diacritics [marks above, below or next to letters indicating certain pronounciation] to be allowed in Indigenous names so she could properly spell the names of her daughters.

Federal government

Nahendeh MLA Shane Thompson tabled the letter and Gahdële-Valpy said the territorial government claimed her requests were the responsibility of the federal government.

“In the past year I reached out MP Michael McLeod to find out if there was actually any correspondence between the N.W.T. and the federal government, but there wasn’t any paper trail,” Gahdële-Valpy said.

Reclaiming Indigenous names runs in the family.

In Łútsël K’é, Jaysi Gahdële, Shëné’s uncle, is in the process of legally changing his last name.

On paper his name is Catholique, reflective of missionaries who came to the area and created a colonized version of his family name.

LutselK’e, N.W.T., is located on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake. Photo: Charlotte Morritt-Jacobs/APTN

“To them Gahdële sounds like Catholique so that’s how we end up with that,” he said.

Jaysi takes issue with the formalities required of Indigenous peoples wising to change their names.

“Policies are put in place by people who don’t know the language and standardization is believing language is one way,” Jaysi said.

“With Dene you have all different sounds and just [with] an A alone there are six different sounds.”

Jaysi is a residential school survivor who said he was pulled aside by two Elders to talk about names when he returned to his home in Łútsël K’é one summer.

“They said my baptism name was different than my real name, so I had to go to the church and ask for records.”

Indigenous names

As a traditional knowledge holder, Jaysi says identity is tied to all Indigenous names.

“A lot of people say they come from this tribe or that tribe, and that’s OK,” Gahdële said. “And they [Indigenous peoples] will say, ‘Which family do you come from?’ Usually a name means something.”

He told APTN it was important to learn about his roots through tracing his names, but it wasn’t easy.

Originally, he thought he belonged to the Boget family – a popular name in Fond du Lac, Sask., where his grandfather grew up.

It turned out his grandfather was taken in by a Boget family and not blood related.

Smallpox pandemic

“We couldn’t go beyond my grandfather and know who his grandfathers were. The conclusion we came to was maybe it was the time of all the sickness, the smallpox pandemic,” Jaysi said.

All of Jaysi’s children have Indigenous names, each unique to them.

“A lot of Indigenous people had original names; no one else carried on that name,” he said.

“I find with English names they might use someone else’s name from the family, who has passed who they want to remember.”

In June 2021, federal legislation was introduced allowing Indigenous people to reclaim names on legal documents, but Gahdële-Valpy said such legislation he’s not been put to practice in her family’s plight.

While Gahdële-Valpy’s daughters have traditional names, her eldest and only son, Kairo, will receive a traditional name through a naming ceremony, feast and drum dance with her family.

“It’s frustrating, but we live every day with our names, so I have to keep fighting,” she said.

APTN reached out to the languages commissioner of the N.W.T. for comment and was  told she was unable to comment.

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