Monday, 21 May 2012

What's in a name?

One of the highlights of this trip for me is the name of the town we're staying in tonite: Moose Jaw. I feel like a giggly teenager, laughing at a pun or slightly off-colour joke, unable to keep a straight face even though I know my juvenile mirth is a bit embarassing in someone of my age. Moose Jaw. Only in Canada, right!? Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

We've driven across the prairies to get here from Winnipeg today: long stretches of road alongside fields, with small clusters of shops and agricultural buildings every few kms. In the afternoon we crossed into province #3: Saskatchewan.

At both the visitor bureaus on the borders between the provinces so far, Daniel has come rushing out with a big grin: 'I've found out another 'world's biggest' for us to find on the main road!'  This morning not far out of Winnipeg we took photos at a gigantic painted concrete column which is apparently the world's biggest coke can; Daniel has a bit of a soft spot for coats of arms, so he was marginally more impressed by the town's coat of arms painted below the red and white 'can' colours than by the official attraction.

The 'world's biggest' in Saskatchewan was an 'Indian Head' - something we found very funny as we drove closer. I joked about taking a photo of it with Daniel, and we could call the photo '1.2 Indians' (assuming a head is about .2 of a person), and we scoured the side of the road for the 'world's biggest Indian Head' which we were assured we would not miss. Actually, we did miss the head at first - because we turned off towards the town of Indian Head (yes, I'm not joking about the name) and the 'biggest' head is right back by the highway. Despite our hilarity between ourselves as we approached the town, both of us were too embarassed to stop and ask someone 'hi, could you please tell us where there is a really big Indian head?' But, as we turned back into the highway after driving through the sleepy little town and resolving that we'd missed it, we found ourselves looking at the back of a gigantic conrete head with a feather bonnet and stoic expression.

We were still joking a bit between ourselves as we posed in front of the concrete monstrosity, and talked about how handy it is to have such strange things to show students when teaching about representations of Indigenous people. After Daniel did his stoic Indian pose in the photo above, I decided  to mix it up and have a moment of Trans-Indigenous encounter, grabbing the poi which have been in the front of the car during our trip and giving them a twirl.

We picked up a brochure at the information shed next door to the statue, and drove off. Daniel read the booklet out loud as we got underway, and as he did the funny side of Indian Head became less funny. Way less funny. The brochure explained that the people of Indian Head are proud to have been in the area for five generation (uh oh - I guess actual Indians aren't included then) and that they decided to commission, fundraise for, and finally install the Indian Head because when the Transcanada highway (which we've been travelling on since Ontario) bypassed the town they wanted to create a reason for travellers to keep stopping there. There was no mention in the booklet of any Indigenous communities despite the town being named after, um, Indians. So. So what's the source of the name?

It turns out that smallpox and other epidemics were so ferocious in the area that the local communities experienced deaths and created a need for massive burials. So many people died that the area just outside of current Indian Head became known as a 'place of skulls.' (Golgotha, as Daniel noted.) This name, which recalls massacre and - before that - presence, was shifted to 'Indian Head' by the settlers who wanted to set up a town there. An overstuffed burial ground became a kitschy name and this in turn became a concrete monstrosity. The 'Indian head' at Indian Head has a rather different tone. Haunting, ghostly, mocking, cruel.

(Of course, none of the Indians of Indian Head were 'Indian' - noone ever is, outside the framework of the state. We found out (after a bit of a google search) the communities were Assiniboine, Cree and Saulteaux. Nga mihi aroha ki nga uri o nga iwi ra.)

Indian Head isn't alone: it isn't the only place with a bizarre Indigenous-referencing name. We passed the Mohawk Motel (with a fake horse out the front) in the middle of Ojibway territory in Ontario. Alongside the great lakes we passed a hotel called Lanikai and Aloha Bay; quiet nods to Hawai'i with no accounting of how such tipping of hats had taken place. Driving out of Winnipeg in Manitoba we saw the 'Polynesian Cocktail Lounge.' Not only names are out of place: people have turned stones all through Sourthern and Western Ontario into Inukshuks, a statue style from the far north, and as we drove through Ontario two days ago a totem pole was standing outside a 'traders' place despite totem poles being from the West coast.

This is Indian land, but it's also not Indian land. It is Assiniboine, Cree and Saulteaux land. It is Garden River First Nation Land. It is the land of all of these specific communities, and of many, many, many more besides.

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