How do our names shape our identities? Do they help answer the question, “Who am I?”—or, “Who are we as a group?” Often, names connect us to our family, to our language, and to our traditions. They contain very subtle references to a history, a tradition, or a place.
One example of the relationship between names, traditions, and identity is reflected in Inuit naming practices. For the Inuit, naming is an act that symbolizes continuity and a connection to family and tradition. Names are passed down through several generations to commemorate each person who has previously held that name. Based on the concept of sauniq, meaning “namesake” or “bone to bone,” this system is an important aspect of Inuit culture, reflecting the Inuit spiritual beliefs and emphasizing the interconnectedness among all life forms. Minnie Aodla Freeman shares her personal story of being named in her 1978 book Life Among the Quallunaat.
Before I was born, my mother had to decide who would be involved at my birth. . . . The first person who has to be there is a mid-wife, man or woman. In my case it was my grandmother. . . . Also present at my birth was the person I was named after, my other grandmother. This automatically meant that I would never call her ‘grandmother’ nor would she call me ‘grandchild’. Instead, we called each other sauniq, namesake, bone-to-bone relation . . . Our belief is that no one really dies until someone is named after the dead person. So, to leave the dead in peace and to prevent their spirits from being scattered all over the community, we give their names to the newborn. The minds of the people do not rest until the dead have been renamed.1
- 1 : Minnie Aodla Freeman, Life Among the Quallunaat (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1978), 72, 50.