25 April 2007

When My Name Was Ohkwa'ri

I read Joseph Bruchac’s Children of the Longhouse as part of a research project on Iroquois history. Bruchac is Abenaki (among other nationalities) in ancestry, but lives in the upstate New York region once inhabited by the Mohawks and thanks “Mohawk friends and neighbors” for their teaching and assistance with this story.

A map early in the book implies that Bruchac has set his novel in the “late 15th century”--i.e., in Columbus’s lifetime, probably before he sailed across the Atlantic from Spain. Europeans have no role in this story.

In reading the book, I was struck by Bruchac’s choices in presenting his characters’ names to readers. There are two young protagonists, girl and boy twins. The girl is called Otsi:stia, the boy Ohkwa’ri. The text doesn’t pause to translate those names or give us pronunciations, though we can find them in a glossary at the end.

The first chapter also introduces several older teenaged males as antagonists for the boy. Their names are presented as Grabber, Greasy Hair, Eats Like a Bear, and Falls a Lot. Only on page 64 does this 146-page novel state that those are “unfortunate nicknames they had earned” by their behavior.

So our heroes have untranslated, “real” Mohawk names while their rivals have English names, which seem less authentic without being any more familiar as proper names. Furthermore, those antagonists’ nicknames show them to be greedy, greasy, gluttonous, and clumsy. The moral lines are about as clear as in an episode of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

As Bruchac introduces adult characters in the following chapters, he usually presents their names in English, but those names are never as pejorative as the antagonists’. The twins’ mother is Herons Flying, their grandmother She Opens the Sky. Sometimes Mohawk and English names appear in parallel: “Shoskoharo’wane, The Big Tree”; “Dagaheo’ga, The One Who Has Two Ideas” (also called Two Ideas).

There’s some discussion on pages 112-3 of changing Otsi:stia’s name:

Big Tree laughed. “My sister’s daughter,” he said, “we are going to give you a new name. Otsi:stia, ‘The Flower,’ is not a good enough name. Maybe you should be ‘Watches Everything.’ What do you think, my sister’s husband?”
However, no one adopts this new name or nickname for Otsi:stia by the end of the book.

Ohkwa’ri’s name is never translated within the story at all, I believe. Only in the glossary can we learn that it translates as Bear. Which raises some questions since the story has several other bears as well:
  • Ohkwa’ri and his sister are part of the Bear Clan.
  • A visiting Anen:tak (Abenaki) healer is named Ktsiwassos, or Great Bear.
  • Earlier, Grabber wanted to have the name Walks With the Bears.
  • On the last page of the story, Grabber takes the new name Bear’s Son in Ktsiwassos’s honor.
So as far as I can tell, Ohkwa’ri is from the Ohkwa’ri clan; he meets a man whose name means Big Ohkwa’ri; his rival once wanted to be called Walks With Ohkwa’ri, and in the end that older boy takes the name Ohkwa’ri’s Son. And none of that overlap seems odd or confusing or psychologically loaded to him.

Does that pattern simply reflect how Mohawk attitudes toward names differ significantly from those we’ve inherited from British culture? Did Bruchac choose to use Ohkwa’ri instead of Bear throughout his story precisely to avoid such confusing perceptions?


Casey said...

The story does translate Ohwa'ri's name as "Bear" in the story. I cannot find an exact page at the moment but I am currently on page 74 and I have already learned his name means bear. It was in there somewhere! I'll keep looking and get back to you if I can find it.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks; let me know what you find.

The opening chapters struck me most strongly, when the siblings are introduced with their Mohawk names but their antagonists are called by unattractive English nicknames.

It would take only a few more words to translate the names of all the characters when they're introduced, as happens later in the book. That would put all the characters on an even footing.