Gwich’in Tribal Council Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik is a Smith no more. The GTC President has reclaimed his historic family name as part of the nation’s efforts to revitalize their culture.
After applying to make the change in February, Kyikavichik made it official March 26 at the Gwich’in Special Assembly in Inuvik.
“Smith was my mother’s married last name and the name of my birth-father,” said Kyikavichik. “Like a lot of indigenous people in the Northwest Territories, I was raised in large part by my grandparents and extended family.
“I’ve been getting good feedback from a lot of our people in our communities.”
Residential School survivors and their descendants are able to legally change their name free of charge in the Northwest Territories.
Carry the Arrow
Kyikavichik means “carry the arrow” in Gwich’in. The name has at least three suggested origins, listed in Jijuu, Who are my Grandparents? Regardless, all three follow the same theme of wanting to carry the arrow on a hunt. When Canadians were first occupying the area they had difficulty pronouncing many of the names, so they shortened them. Consequentially, many Kyikavichiks found their names shortened to “Kay.”
Having reclaimed his family name, Ken Kyikavichik said he hoped he would inspire other Gwich’in to reclaim their names. Alongside efforts to bring the Gwich’in Language back from the brink, connecting with identities displaced by colonialism is an important part of cultural revitalization.
“Part of it is learning to pronounce it properly and explain the meaning to people,” he said. “In my view, that’s all part of the process of reconciliation. Letting people know what these names mean and what the reasoning is behind them.
“We have a declining number of fluent speakers and it’s imperative that we undertake as much work as we can to restore that and revitalize the use of our Gwich’in language in our communities and our institutions.”
Clarifying Leadership Roles
During the Special Assembly, attendees also voted to expand the authority of the GTC’s department managers. Kyikavichik said it will allow managers to handle more public issues, leaving the executive to work on bigger ticket items.
Names aren’t the only heritage the GTC is working to restore. Kyikavichik said he and the GTC executive were working to restore a more traditional governance system.
Instead of band councils, hamlet councils and DGOs, Kyikavichik said the goal was to move back to the traditional system. Doing so would resolve many of the disputes as to what authority lies with whom.
“The current system we have now is effectively the Euro-Canadian model of governance,” he said. “One of the changes our communities expect is to restore the rightful position of what is now known as chief and council.
“Historically, the chief everything in terms of government. The decision maker, the provider, in many cases the judge and jury. Whatever your issue was, you went to the chief at the community level.
“In the current model that we see it’s split across the chief, a municipality mayor and at times a Designated Gwich’in Organization President. So we’re trying to clarify the roles and responsibilities. We really would like to work to simplify not only the institutions but also the roles and responsibilities of our leadership.”