Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Nunavut July 17, 2014 - 10:30 am

Kinship naming among Inuit unites family and community

New book highlights importance of continuing naming tradition

Elders from the Kivalliq region share their thoughts in the book Inuit Kinship and Naming Customs. (INHABIT MEDIA IMAGE)
Elders from the Kivalliq region share their thoughts in the book Inuit Kinship and Naming Customs. (INHABIT MEDIA IMAGE)

Arviat elder Matilda Sulurayok’s sauniq, or namesake, is Kimaliarjuk, and it’s a name that’s played an important role in her life.

“My namesake, who was an old man, came to see me shortly after I was born,” she said in a 2012 interview, “and said that I would be able to do many things and be able to work on sealskins skillfully, because they are really useful for men and children.”

Sulurayok was of course too young to understand this as an infant, but it’s something she grew to understand and value in a time before Inuit lived in permanent houses, as she went on to become a talented seamstress.

This tradition of giving your child a namesake is an age-old Inuit practice that Sulurayok says must be maintained.

When she had her own daughter, Sulurayok called her Rose, but she also wanted to give her an Inuktitut name that would offer the child an easier life than her own parents had.

So Sulurayok named her daughter after her father, Issakiark, which she believed would relieve her daughter of all the hard work her father did to support his family.

“Back then he literally had nothing — no hunting equipment when we were living on the land,” Sulurayok explained, in the book Inuit Kinship and Naming Customs, published by Inhabit Media.

“The men used to hunt by dog teams, and sometimes by foot, for many miles. I could not stop thinking about how hard my father worked for us to survive, so I wanted to name him as my daughter. So I did.”

The problem today, said Sulurayok — and other Kivalliq elders interviewed for the book agree — is that the practice of naming Inuit babies after their elders as well as using kinship terms (tuq&urarniq) is quickly disappearing.

Naming is serious thing, and it’s a tradition that should continue, she said.

“I feel sorry for our young Inuit today because they have not been taught important issues and our traditions regarding naming children. It’s obvious that they are not sure who to ask when they have a child,” Sulurayok said.

“Today, some young people are not even contacting their parents when they have a baby. The elders of the family should decide who the child will be named after. It was always like that, and I still tend to use that rule of naming.”

When Inuit children are born and given only English names, or names that do not reflect the greater family or community, it creates a detachment from their culture, elders fear.

The relationship between a sauniriit (the person who receives a name) and their namesake is intimate and strong; without it, elder Leo Sr. Ahmak said, children cannot understand where they’ve come from or who their family is.

If and when a child is named after someone who is deceased, it also helps to ease the pain of having lost a loved one, Ahmak said.

“The agony and grieving cease a lot sooner once you have the name back in your family,” Ahmak said.

It’s equally important to tuq&uraq your relatives, he said, or address them with kinship terms.

“When I know I’m related to someone, I use the tuq&urausiq that was used for that namesake,” Ahmak said. “This relationship with my relatives has helped bring us closer together.

“It helps make me less afraid or hesitant to ask for anything from my relatives — I can just be openly friendly and ask questions if I don’t know, without being embarrassed about life issues.”

Kinship terms are very precise in Inuktitut, and specific to the sex and age of the name holder, who is addressing that person and sometimes even to the region.

For example, aniksaq is the term a female cousin would use to address her male cousin, but only in the South Baffin or Nunavik region.

Some elders fear the loss of the naming tradition may have even greater consequences.

“Today, people are naming their children after any one they like,” said elder James Konek. “This is one of the reasons why newborns die at an early age, because their parents are naming them after people they do not even know.”

Inhabit Media’s co-founder Louise Flaherty, who helped to edit Inuit Kinship and Naming Customs, said the concern over the loss of naming traditions goes beyond the Kivalliq region where the book’s elders were interviewed.

“What elders are saying is that it’s detached people from the connections they once had,” Flaherty said. 

“That’s a concern everywhere, not just in the Kivalliq region,” she said. “For some, it goes deeper and it’s very spiritual.”

Flaherty said she was given nine names, which connect her to various families in Clyde River.

It’s an ancient practice which translates into a modern setting; at Flaherty’s workplace, she and a co-worker were named after a pair of brothers — Flaherty the younger — and so their relationship is akin to siblings.

Flaherty hopes the book will help revive the practice among Inuit, especially younger generations.

“A lot of younger people are reading now so they can pick this book up and see how naming customs work,” she said. “’It’s there for them to use.”

Inuit Kinship and Naming Customs (Kivalliq) was published in 2013 by Inhabit Media.

A Baffin version of the book has just been published by Nunavut Arctic College.

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(11) Comments:

#1. Posted by Name By-Law on July 17, 2014

Elders in Arviat are so right, why are we letting this happen?  Just like our Inuktitut language, it is weakening, it is disappearing.  Changing your English name to Inuktitut is NOT helping; Piita-Peter, Ilmili_Emily, Ilisapi etc.  We need Christain/English names unchanged they are not Inuit names, it is painful to asked a young Inuk his/her Inuk name, reply is Joanasi or Mathewsie.  Let’s try harder to search our family tree and try to name our new born from family circle.

#2. Posted by uvanga on July 17, 2014

“This is one of the reasons why newborns die at an early age, because their parents are naming them after people they do not even know.”
So where did the first names of inuit come from.
I chose to name my panik a name that i like. Not the boys name that was chosen for her when she was born.

#3. Posted by snapshot on July 17, 2014

@ #2, actually there is no gender name in inuit tradition.

#4. Posted by Names are Personal and up to the Parents - Not Eld on July 17, 2014

“This is one of the reasons why newborns die at an early age, because their parents are naming them after people they do not even know.”

This is NOT true. Children and infants who unfortunately die an untimely death die because the requirements to sustain life were somehow interrupted.  I hope that people reading this do not belief this absurd statement.

Naming children is a personal, intimate matter that is up to the parents and they should not be made to feel guilty about their choices by so called respected members of the community.

Cultures adapt and change all the time, all over the world. Culture is alive as a living social fabric that adapts and changes over time, just like humans. We should not be afraid of change anymore.

#5. Posted by Say What? on July 17, 2014

#2 Do you really believe infants die because of a name they were given?


#6. Posted by Inuk on July 17, 2014

#4 thank you for your thoughts on this but I don’t think you understand where this is coming from and reading your comments it is very clear that you do not understand this tradition.
We are loosing a lot of our traditions every generation and this is starting to be one of them too.
We are not as close to our families and extended families as we used to be, now people are starting to be more on themselves and their little family.
We could always tell where people come from with the name they have and we would know if they are your family member.
It is sad today the younger generation is starting to loose this tradition.

#7. Posted by superstition versus tradition on July 18, 2014

There is a difference between tradition and superstition in which the topic of naming your child ‘wrong’ equates to it dying early appears to be superstition. I can relate; when I was a child I heard things from my mother like: don’t walk under a ladder – bad luck, don’t break a mirror – 7 years bad luck, if a black cat crosses your path – bad luck, etc. I grew to understand those messages were not helpful, and are someone else’s superstitious beliefs. Thank God I don’t live with those fearful provoking messages today & I certainly did not pass them on to my children. .

#8. Posted by Bill on July 18, 2014

#6 I imagine you will see more of the same in the future as this is the tragectory western society has been on since the industrial revolution.

It might be sad, but I think it’s probably inevitable.

#9. Posted by Anguta on July 18, 2014

Indeed, our traditional stories, rituals and taboos are tied into the fearful and precautionary culture required by our harsh environment. It raises the question as to whether they qualify as beliefs at all or plain fact. My friend A’akuulujjusi, a powerful angaquq (shaman), said thus: “We don’t believe. We fear.” Living in a this varied and irregular world, we traditionally did not worship anything, but fear much. Some thought the angaquq was under the influence of missionaries, as he even converted to Christianity, yet he rolled on no floors and spoke in no tongues. It was A’akuulujjusi who decided my name and the moment he invoked the powerful spirit Anguta in me, people saw a supernatural entity enter my infant person. Beams of light shone from high in the heavens, through the camp and entered into my body. I then fell in a coma like state for many sleeps. When I awoke the people of my village said I had a visible aura of azure blue, that surrounded me for many months after. Taima.

#10. Posted by Names are Personal and up to the Parents on July 18, 2014

#7 Actually I think that some superstitions have merit behind them. Take your example walking under a ladder - it is not smart to walk under a ladder because it can cause an accident, same with breaking a mirror - the glass chards could hurt someone. I love Inuit superstitions such as the qallupiliut in ice cracks, what a brilliant way to help keep children away from ice cracks, where they could dangerously fall under.  Also the brilliant superstition about having to keep walking and busy while pregnant to aide with a fast labour and delivery. These things definitely have purpose.  But to tell someone they will die as a child because the name was chosen by the parents and of an unknown person is a way of people trying to instill fear so they can control.

#11. Posted by Names are Personal and up to the Parents on July 18, 2014

#6 I do understand the culture. My daughter is named in this tradition.  Although I see value and respect the healing her birth and namesake provides family members, I don’t think it’s fair to others to threaten their baby’s life if they choose the wrong name and out of tradition.

Tradition itself is personal. That is why we have different dialects of Inuktitut, of clothing styles that people closely guard and don’t share.  These are trade secrets! And naming children is personal.  We will never ever go back to the way it was. Traditions change and the important thing you did not get from my comment is that it is OK for tradition and cultures to change and adapt, as they naturally do.

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