When the girl was born, her golden hair reminded her grandmother of a fine silk ribbon. So that became her name. But most of Canada never knew.
The name wasn’t secret. But it was in Kanien’kéha, the Mohawk language, and most of Canada didn’t have any interest in it. For example, to write her name correctly requires a colon, but Canadian passports do not allow colons, nor do email addresses or social media handles. So she just went by Jessica Deer.
But her name is part of a larger story. Canada historically forced First Nation people to adopt Europeanized names. The practice was part of a broader policy of forced assimilation, banning Indigenous languages and forcing Indigenous youth into residential schools to strip them of their families and heritage. The recent discovery of unmarked graves at one school in British Columbia points to the depth of the inhumanity.
But this week, Canada announced its Indigenous people can now officially use their Indigenous names. It means that Ka’nhehsí:io Deer (pronounced GUN-heh-SEE-yo) will no longer have to use “Jessica” on her passport. The CBC reporter reverted to her Indigenous name professionally last September and wrote a column to tell readers why it was so important. “I love my name, and I am proud of it,” she said. “It is a daily reminder that I am a part of a living culture.”