Descriptive adjectives distinguished individuals. For example, the old English king “William Rufus” meant the “Red-headed or ruddy-skinned William”. The famous Scots hero “Roderick Dhu” was simply “Black Roderick”. A workman, John Smith, might have originally been John, the Blacksmith. A wealthy man might be named for his estate, as was Medard Chouart de Groseilliers – from the name of his father’s farm, “The Gooseberries”. The Scandinavians had another way of naming. Eric might be the son of John – hence “Eric Johnson” but Eric’s son might be Knute Ericson. The Chinese, on the other hand, put the family name first as in Mah Bing where Mah is the family name. English-speaking people do this in the form Watson, George when doing alphabetical lists.
The Indian thought that the white man’s way of naming people was ridiculous and confusing, even before he saw the telephone directory of a big city, with its pages and pages of Smith, Jones or Brown, etc.
The Indian often had a different approach. Among the Beavers, the birth of a son had a special significance, leading to what, to the white man, seemed like an upside-down arrangement. When the boy received his tribal name, the father was thereafter referred to as “The-father-of….” to denote family relationship. This was very confusing to the missionaries who made the first written records after baptism. As a symbol of the new life, they gave the person a new Christian name, invariably a Christian saint’s name. Very seldom did they bother honouring the longstanding customs of the Indians!
Then came the schoolteachers, who must keep records. So the age old question “What is your name?” became a long series of questions:
“What is your other name?” Being often too long and unpronounceable for a white man in a hurry, the Indian name would not do.
“What is your father called?”
“Then you will be “John George”.
This is the way Chief Dan George got his name. If you walk among the gravestones in an Indian cemetery you will notice how many surnames were ordinary Christian baptismal “first” names, which church and treaty perpetuated.
The treaty-makers had to record by family group, those who were entitled to the annual payments. To simplify thing, the Indians outside the church were obliged to take – or be given, family surnames declaring what family the Indian belonged to, so that he could not take treaty money under several different names. In many cases a rough translation of the Indian name was recorded. None foresaw that a truly honorable and significant name might be Anglicized into a laughing stock and subject for teasing that would eventually follow Indian children into integrated schools, and into public life. Such a corruption was the local English approximation of “Belly Full.” An elderly Metis told the writer that the name was the French “Belle Feuille” – “Beautiful Leaf”.
Ex-Chief Monias of the Saulteuax at Moberly Lake who died at a great age in 1973 was known by his nickname rather than by his actual name. “Monias” or “Moniow” meant, “Like a White Man”, which might or might not be complimentary! If the poor man nick-named “Monias” happened to be a Beaver, he probably got the name in derision from his Cree neighbors. In this case it would indicate that he was awkward, inept or a simpleton, just ‘like a white man.’ How was the commissioner who recorded the treaty names to know?
At present, few full-blood Indians remain. Most of the Metis have common French-Canadian or Scotch surnames, derived from the white traders who married the Cree women after the fashion of the country, or in the church missions.
Such an Indian was “Wabi” generally known as “Chief Wabi” although he was chief only by courtesy. “Wabi” is a Cree word meaning “white” or “like a white man”. Old timers around Chetwynd remember him as a fair-skinned Indian with brown hair, who might have been taken for a Scandinavian. But he knew only the Indian language and had never been at a school or church mission. Because his wife accepted baptism, her grave is marked in the Roman Catholic cemetery at Moberly – “Mrs. Wabi Calazon”. Wabi himself is said to be buried on Table (Wartenbe) Mountain, which dominates East Pine. Wabi Creek flows through the outskirts of Chetwynd.
Charlie Yahey dislikes the name “Yahey” which he says sounds like a Cree swear word. He knows what his real name is, a proud Beaver name, but he could not convey it to a Cree interviewer. All of his family and relations are recorded on the treaty lists as Yahey. Even the “Charlie” is not correct he said. His grandfather had a Beaver name which sounded like “Charlie” – hence “Charlie Lake” his grandfather’s old hunting ground. On one of the old treaty lists, Yahey is followed in brackets by (Wolf) which makes us wonder whether he is related to the famous and proud warrior known by that name on the Pouce Coupe Prairie and around Fort St. John. People yet living remember having met him.