In Coast Salish culture, receiving a traditional name is both a privilege and a responsibility all in one. Along with a name comes a level of responsibility that requires the recipient to live in a way that honours those who carried the name before. Because receiving a name is such an honour, those who receive them will carry them with a level of pride and caring that should be shown great respect. I was sharing a conversation with my friend, Jared Qwustenuxun Williams of Quw’utsun, about the importance of striving to remember and use traditional names when they are offered, which led Jared to share with me an encounter his son had while at a medical appointment – he gave me permission to share the incident with you today.
"[My son's] name is Qwustenuxun, and when he introduces himself it's always a tense moment. A few years back, we went to a medical appointment at one of our regular clinics. The receptionist smiled as she greeted us, she addressed me by name and searched her screen to find my son's name. But then it happened, the sour face hwunitums make when they cannot say a foreign word. She calmly reverted back to smiling and asked my son, "hey champ, what's your name?" My son, still young and innocent, spoke back clearly: "Qwustenuxun". I could see her puzzle with it again, now hearing the word that she couldn't read. She tried again she said, "well that's a big name, what do they call you for short?" To which my son replied, "Qwustenuxun". The receptionist looked up at me with that sour face again and said, "sorry, there's no way I can pronounce that. Does he have a nickname?"
Jared went on to share: "If you are asked to call someone by their traditional name, I can promise you that the person who asked will appreciate your effort, even if you get it wrong at first. We know it's hard, we know it's foreign, but it's never gonna get any better if we don't try. We must acknowledge that our colonial tongues trip over Indigenous names. The worst thing we can do is say, “No, I can't say that,” or “Can I call you something else?” We must all work together to break the stigmas and stereotypes around Indigenous Peoples’ names."
When someone shares their traditional name, or a Hul'qui'min'um word or phrase with me, I often jot it down phonetically, and place it somewhere that I can see it. Viewing the spelling helps me mentally recite the pronunciation, and let me tell you -- when that person returns and I integrate those names, words, and phrases into our conversations, their eyes ALWAYS light up with surprise and delight. Is my pronunciation perfect? No. In fact, we often share a laugh at my challenged tongue, and the limitations it holds in enunciating words. But it doesn't matter. It's the effort and intention that are important.