Receiving a traditional name in Northern Ontario

Author: Ophira Horwitz, community trainer

 

Wawatay-eequay nindeesinkaz.

 

Hello, my name is Lady of the Northern Lights.

 

I’m very honoured to have received this traditional name from my gimez Rosie Meekis. “Gimez” means both god-parent and god-child in Oji-Cree. This means that we take care of each other. A friend told me that your gimez is someone you can turn to when you can’t talk to your parents. A mentor and confidante. The bond is generally formed when a baby is born, and the parents ask an elder or a respected friend to become their child’s gimez, but this relationship can be fostered at any age.

 

I asked Rosie to be my gimez because she was my first friend in the community. Rosie taught me how to clean a fish, skin a beaver, and make bannock for the first time. She invites me to dinner with her family, takes me for rides in her truck, and her mother just made me a pair of moose-hide moccasins. She makes me feel accepted. I can’t think of anyone more perfect to be my gimez. I am so happy that she said yes.

 

Ophira and her gimez, Rosie (photo credit: Sandie Benitah)

The gimez’s first job is to think of a name that encompasses character traits or virtues that will guide their gimez throughout their life. Rosie named me Wawatay-eequay because of my fascination with the Northern Lights. I can sometimes see them from my bedroom window, and I check the sky every night before going to sleep. I tell people not to be shy about phoning me once, twice, three times to wake me up if the Lights are out. My friends tell me that you are not supposed to whistle at them, or they will pluck you up and take you away, but I am tempted to defy reason if not to get a better look. The Northern Lights are always a wonder to look at. A magnetic force that’s hard not to stare at. A true beauty in the most remote, desolate area. In other words, Wawatay-eequay is a very powerful name.

 

The naming ritual takes place in late August at the Wabanoowin, or blueberry ceremony. The ceremony is to give thanks for all the berries, game, fish, and plants that the land has provided over the past year. It takes place at the end of the summer, when the growth cycle of wild berries has come and nearly gone: small cherries the size of blueberries in late spring, followed by raspberries in June and July, and then blueberries into the early fall. People bring berries to the ceremony as an offering to their gimez and to the community, and the berries are eaten with other traditional foods in a big feast at the end.

 

In preparation for the ceremony, my friend Ida Anishinabie took me to the Sandpit, on the edge of the site where the ceremony was to take place. We picked enough blueberries to fill two plastic grocery bags. The berries were small but plentiful, and grew on low shrubs in the shade.

 

We also found a bush with medicinal leaves: oblong-shaped, rolled edges, thick and leathery on top, with woolly mats of rust-coloured hair on the undersides. Ida called it “Indian tea.” Later, I learned that it is also called “Labrador tea.” Now I see it growing all over the place.

labrador tea
Labrador tea (photo credit: Ophira Horwitz)

In addition to the blueberries, Rosie instructed me to bring two more offerings to the ceremony: an unopened pack of tobacco and a household item to present as a gift to give thanks for my new name.

 

Sandie Benitah, a guest trainer from CP24 in Toronto, was staying with me for a couple of weeks, at the time of the ceremony. She was as excited about the chance to learn about and participate in this tradition. Together, we went to the Northern store and selected treats like coffee, tea, and jam, which we carefully arranged in a big wooden basket. That night, we made pouches out of tanned leather in which we wrapped our tobacco.

 

Some of the elders camp at the site ahead of time to make preparations. Many others choose to camp overnight after the ceremony, and attend an outdoor church service the next morning. Sandie had never been camping before and was eager to give it a try. One post on the community Facebook group later, a person whom I had never met offered to lend us a tent. We packed oursleeping bags, piled into Rosie’s truck, and we were on our way.

 

sandie, ophira, and rosie at the sandpit post-ceremony
Sandie (L), Ophira (C) and Rosie (R) at the sandpit post-ceremony (photo credit: Sandie Benitah)

The Wabanoowin ceremony is sacred. No cameras or cell phones are permitted while the ceremony is in progress. A gigantic, long tent with a big Canadian flag was set up in the middle of the site. Environment Canada had issued a rainfall warning that day and it was pouring wet, but the tent kept us dry. The community gathered around in a circle under the tent, with the feast of berries and traditional food laid out in the centre.

 

The ceremony began with speeches in Oji-Cree by respected members of the community, including elders and members of the Band Council. Later, I asked Rosie what they were saying, and she told me that they were speaking to the history and the significance of the ceremony.

 

Then, a tradition hand-drum and a rattle made out of a tin can and pebbles were passed around the circle, and played together in tandem. Everyone had a chance to participate. I played the drum while Sandie shook the rattle, and then passed the drum to her, while she passed the rattle on to the next person.

 

At this point, Rosie instructed me to offer my pouch to John, one of the elders, and tell him that I would be receiving a traditional name. He carefully unwrapped the tobacco and stuffed a bit of it into a pipe, lit it, and passed it around. Several pipes made their way around the circle. I could taste different kinds of smoke: sweet and woody, heavy and dry. Someone told me that some of the pipes were over a hundred years old. I saw John tuck my leather pouch into the carrying case used to store the pipe. Rosie told me that my pouch would be used in the naming ceremony for years to come.

 

There were many names to be given that day, so groups of people went at a time, going around the circle as always. When it was my turn, my heart was beating so fast that I held on to Rosie’s arm to keep myself stable. With a microphone in hand, Rosie presented me to the community as Wawatay-eequay. Then, we walked around the circle, and I introduced myself to each member of the community and shook their hands. Wawatay-eequay nindeesinkaz. Wawatay-eequay. Wawatay-eequay.

 

After the ceremony, we feasted on one of the most incredible meals that I’ve ever had in my life: fistfuls of wild blueberries and raspberries, gigantic moose tibia bones wrapped in meat, smoked whitefish, fried walleye, powdered fish mashed with berries, kashkoyash (moose, potatoes, and bacon), moose liver and onions, goose and flour soup, and of course, bannock. My favourite part, however, was a special tea that was made with many different traditional medicines, including muskrat root, cedar leaves, and wild mint. It tasted of herbs and the earth and I could drink it by the bucket.

 

Sandie and I didn’t go camping in the end, which was probably for the best since our tent didn’t have a protective tarp on the bottom. No matter: together, we had experienced one of the best days of our lives.

 

I’m still pinching myself. It was such an honour to be given a traditional name in front of the whole community, much less a name that means so much to me, by a person who has become important to me. I am so incredibly happy that Sandie was there to share my special day with me, and that the memory will be a part of our friendship always.

 

The other day, I was shopping for groceries at the Northern and someone commented that I have grown roots in Sandy Lake. Perhaps this means that even if I do whistle at the Northern Lights, I won’t get swept up: the community will be here to keep me safe and grounded.

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