I remember when I was a kid that there were only three places you could get information about Indians.
It was the late 1950s and early 1960s and there weren’t a lot of venues where real information was available. Quite simply, our people had not yet come to the point in their histories where our storytellers had become recognized.
The first place you went to learn about Indians was Hollywood. Everyone watched TV and movies and everyone knew the big three tribes; Cherokee, Apache and Sioux. Everyone knew about wild attacks on wagon trains, drums in the night, war paint and guttural talk spoken from a stoic face.
The second source was comic books. For every laconic, gun-slinging cowpoke there was a barbaric renegade Indian bent on massacre. Or else, there was the placid, sage, loyal Indian sidekick. It’s where we learned about Tonto. Comic books gave us Indians we could hold and study and they offered generations images of my people that have never really faded.
Third, was good old rumour and word of mouth. Everyone had an opinion on things ‘Indian’ stemming from those two primary sources. It made the world an interesting place to be a displaced Ojibway kid. I learned more about what I was supposed to be from the white kids around me than I did from my own people. The only problem was, none of it was genuine.
Take names, for instance. As a kid I was surrounded by Hollywood and comic book Indians with names like Wahoo, Stalking Bear, Many Knives and Rolling Thunder. My name, in contrast, was Wagamese. I always felt as though I got shafted in the great Indian name department. We were supposed to have great, grand-sounding names and Wagamese didn’t seem to cut it. It took a long time to get over that.
Then, when I was in my late 30s I lived in southern Alberta. That’s the homeland of the Stoney, Peigan, Blackfoot and Blood people. While I lived there I got a chance to attend some of their ceremonies, powwows and cultural gatherings. I got a real glimpse into their traditional lives.
They have great, grand names. There are people called Shot Both Sides, Many Grey Horses, Starlight, Heavy Shields, and Eagle Speaker. For a transplanted Ojibway with the name Wagamese, I wanted one of those romantic, image-evoking family names. You could say I had a pretty bad case of genus envy.
Like most people who were kids during that informational void of the ‘50s and ‘60s, I romanticized the idea of having a great, grand-sounding Indian name. I wanted to be a Wolfchild, a Black Bear, a Thunderchild or a Medicine Crane. Anything but plain old Wagamese. That didn’t sound dramatic enough to qualify as an Indian name.
Even white people acting like Indians had better-sounding names than mine. You could see them at pow wows all dressed to kill in skillfully copied regalia. They were Cougar Stalking Man, Whispering Cloud Woman and Heavy Thunder Wind. Wow. Nowadays there are websites where nonnative people are called Coyote Dreamer, Eagle Wind Woman, Deep Blue Crystal Medicine Woman or Songs in the Wind. How does someone get a name like that?
Of course, the popular belief arising from the rumour and word-of-mouth mill is that native people named their children after the first thing the parents saw after the birth. That might explain Red Sky, Morning Star, or even Running Rabbit but who sees a Thundering Buffalo Cloud, a Rainbow Spirit Wind or a Pacing Wolverine?
I think we should all be able to choose our own Indian names like that. We’d be far more interesting sounding if we did. But there’d have to be a formula. First you’d have to pick a verb and then an animal. So you could be Dancing Fox, say. Then you’d have to pick a colour and an attitude or an attribute. So in the end you could be Shy Blue Dancing Fox. Wow. Imagine that?
Once you’d got that formula down you could make up business cards, set up a website and start earning big bucks by giving people great, grand-sounding Indian names. There’d be money rolling in hand over fist. Everyone would want to be Noble Yellow Walking Bird, Open Minded White Nodding Owl or Stern Faced Wading Bear. Wow.
If such a site existed I’d send away and requisition a name change. Yessir. No more Wagamese for me. I’d join the ranks of other awesome named people. I’d have a list of requests of course. All those great sounding names from my childhood when Indians were people of the movies, the comic book or the rumour. I’d be memorable and far more brown by virtue of my great name. Heavy Purple Thunder Ox. That’s me.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org