Onomastic colonialism: People in power seldom change their own names

I’ve recently finished reading Names, Numbers and Northern Policy: Inuit, Project Surname, and the Politics of Identity. It was an excellent book: it makes an important point logically and briefly with thorough research but without academic pretension.
To summarize in my more technocratic language: Qallunaat (non-Inuit) administrators of the Northwest Territories needed a unique identifier for each Inuit person, to deliver government benefits, deliver mail, etc. Inuit names were difficult for Qallunaat to pronounce, had many variant spellings, and did not have patrilineal surnames or gender-differentiated given names.
The 1930s solution was to hand out fibreboard discs with unique numbers; this was administratively efficient, but insulting to some. In the late 1960s, well-meaning but still colonialist administrators decided to replace the disc numbers with surnames. These were no more unique identifiers than Qallunaat surnames are; it would have made more sense to give Inuit the Social Insurance Numbers then being assigned to other Canadians. The surnames were imposed in a rapid, error-prone process, usually by finding a surname for a man then surprising his wife and children with it.

Many Inuit have humoured the bureaucrats, and the missionaries before them, by accepting English first and last names for official purposes. But minority cultures are resilient: they have continued their traditional pattern of passing on single names (which represent souls) from recently dead people to recently born people. Sometimes they kept these names secret from Qallunaat – I wonder why?

A side-note to those of you with more common names than mine: in Inuktitut, atikulu “means that you have the same name. Kulu is something good. You share a good name.” (p.82)
This paragraph (pp. 64-65) resonates:
“When names are changed for these reasons [hard to pronounce, too long, too similar], they are almost always the names of minority people who are accommodating those with more power. Many voluntary name changes imply upward mobility (for example, some immigrants “Canadianize” their names ot get better jobs). Some names are changed under duress, by immigration authorities who mis-hear or don’t hear a name, by teachers or classmates who want to “help” minority people seem more “normal”. People in power seldom change their own names. (The increasing trends towards name retention or name-changing by women also reflect power issues.)

This was an excellent reminder that I am in a position of power in this society, and that power stems partly from pride in my identity. I have kept my birth name. I insist that people spell and pronounce “Alana” correctly, and won’t accept any diminutives (Al, ‘Lan, whatever). I would not give up “Boltwood” even though it sounded stupid to me and the other kids who teased me about it. I have struggled and failed to come up with online pseudonyms.

As I read the book, I kept seeing the incompetence of our past bureaucracies. Government programs need administrators with education, common-sense and humanity. The embarassing degree of colonialism described in the book could have been avoided if the administrators had:
– a broader world view: exposure to languages and traditions that are very foreign.
– cultural adaptability: a willingness to record a person’s perfectly good one name, instead of forcing them to add an artificial surname.
– basic data architecture knowledge: when to use a unique identifier, how to design and assign one.
– the ability to identify real requirements for administration: why was it necessary to track birthdates or marital status?
Sadly, the author did not explicitly identify these gaps in the NWT administrators.

Currently, Ontario’s Registrar General has rules to easily accommodate the tradition of surname changes at marriage, but also any other name change. They do require both a first and last name, of up to 80 Roman characters, and a fair chunk of money. But the requirements are flexible enough to handle any onomastic (naming) tradition that can be transliterated. (Note that some other Ontario government programs can handle people with one name (they treat it as a surname). Databases can be designed with FIRST_NAME optional!)

The Northwest Territories certificate application form makes cultural assumptions too numerous to mention. It’s not clear whether their database would squawk if surname, gender, father’s name, or other fields were missing. There are similar forms for changing names and changing aboriginal status.