Friday, April 28, 2006

What's in a name?

One of the things I've come to admire is how traditional Inuit names served to identify a person. Besides being a way to identity a person, traditional names also provided information about family connections and could act as descriptors of that person's personality or other noteworthy aptitude. I always thought it would be neat if I had my own Inuit name but not knowing the language at first caused an obvious problem.

During one of my Northern Studies classes we were discussing the contributions of James Houston to the north. Houston was a documentary film-maker and artist who is credited with popularizing Inuit art in southern markets. Houston first visited the Nunavik region in Northern Quebec in the 1950s and lived for many years in what is now Nunavut. I mentioned to my students a book that Houston had wrote about his adventures and that he had subtitled it Saumik, meaning left-handed in Inuktitut.

Being a south-paw myself, a few students jokingly used this name for me. I said that perhaps I should have a name of my own since I'm nowhere close to Houston in the annals of northern lore. I thought that would be the end of things, but the next class a student said I should have an Inuktitut name. Since she seemed interested in not seeing me go nameless I told her she could name me anything she wanted. Thinking quickly, I then made 2 provisions. First, no names that I wouldn't use in front of my mother and second, the name had to begin and end with a "q" (The reason for this being that "q" in Inuktitut has a different pronunciation than a "q" in English and it was the one sound that took me the longest to sound out properly.) So off she went to find a name.

The name she decided on fulfilled my little requirements. The name was "qavvigaarjuq", meaning wolverine. Of course the students thought this was quite funny though I didn't quite grasp the full meaning of the name. Qavvigaarjuq is a term sometimes used by adults when referring to children. Just like wolverines, small children can be quite active. As an Inuit colleague explained to me, an elder might say to a young rambunctious child - "Hey qavvigaarjuq, slow down.....climb down from there."

Of course I then recognized the good-natured tease. I can get quite animated in the classroom at times when I teach because teaching is a passion for me. Outside of the school, I know I'm a pretty quiet, private person. Sometimes when I get on my skidoo out on the ice I just like to head everywhere like a wolverine. I'm quite taken with the name and appreciate how my student took the time to find a good one for me.