Project surname

Two women talking at a kitchen table [Eunice Koonoo Arreak (left) and Sophie Qaunak (right)]

Two women talking at a kitchen table [Eunice Koonoo Arreak (left) and Sophie Qaunak (right). Eunice Koonoo Arreak was married to Benjamin Joanasie Arreak. Before Project Surname, she was known as Koonoo E5-862. (Canada Archives photo, 1970)]

I had no idea about any of this until I saw the caption of this 1970 photo from the Canada Archives.

“Eunice Koonoo Arreak was married to Benjamin Joanasie Arreak. Before Project Surname, she was known as Koonoo E5-862.”

From Wikipedia:

In the 1920s, changes in lifestyle and serious epidemics like tuberculosis made the government of Canada interested in tracking the Inuit of Canada’s Arctic. Traditionally Inuit names reflect what is important in Inuit culture: environment, landscape, seascape, family, animals, birds, spirits. However these traditional names were difficult for non-Inuit to parse. Also, the agglutinative nature of Inuit language meant that names seemed long and were difficult for southern bureaucrats and missionaries to pronounce.

Thus, in the 1940s, the Inuit were given disc numbers, recorded on a special leather ID tag, like a dog tag. They were required to keep the tag with them always. (Some tags are now so old and worn that the number is polished out.) The numbers were assigned with a letter prefix that indicated location (E = east), community, and then the order in which the census-taker saw the individual. In some ways this state renaming was abetted by the churches and missionaries, who viewed the traditional names and their calls to power as related to shamanism and paganism.

They encouraged people to take Christian names. So a young woman who was known to her relatives as “Lutaaq, Pilitaq, Palluq, or Inusiq” and had been baptised as “Annie” was under this system to become Annie E7-121. People adopted the number-names, their family members’ numbers, etc., and learned all the region codes (like knowing a telephone area code).

Until Inuit began studying in the south, many did not know that numbers were not normal parts of Christian and English naming systems. Then in 1969, the government started Project Surname, headed by Abe Okpik, to replace number-names with patrilineal “family surnames”. But contemporary Inuit carvers and graphic artists still use their disk number as their signature on their works of art.

I don’t know how to process this. This is such recent history that it’s not even history.

One thought on “Project surname

  1. Pingback: Eunice Koonoo Arreak Bird and Seal Sculpture | Gracious, Good's Blog

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