In an act of reclamation, the Grand Chief of the Gwich’in Tribal Council has officially changed his name to Ken Kyikavichik, a name that has been in his family for generations.
Kyikavichik, who was elected as grand chief last September, told Cabin Radio he had been considering legally changing his name for some time.
“My late uncle Johnny, I know he was looking at changing his last name to Kyikavichik as well,” he said. “Unfortunately, he passed before he could do that. A lot of it had to do with just reclaiming who he felt he was.
“In many ways, I’m doing the same.”
Kyikavichik means “carry the arrow” in Gwich’in, the grand chief explained.
“One of my ancestors, when he was a young boy, he wanted very desperately to hunt with the older men in the community,” he said. “Unfortunately, he wasn’t of age that he could go out, even as a very young boy, and so tried helping in any which way he can.
“We used to hunt with arrows back in those days, and he was going around in Gwich’in … asking people, ‘Can I carry the arrow?’ So, the Elders and people in town are started calling him Kyikavichik. That’s how the name got started.”
The name, carried for generations, was the maiden name of Kyikavichik’s mother. It was anglicized and shortened over time to Kay or Kaye for some members of the family.
Changing his name is a way of honouring the family members who came before him, Kyikavichik said – many of whom left long legacies as leaders of the Gwich’in people.
“We have plenty of other examples in our family of people that are supporting the community, supporting our Gwich’in people,” Kyikavichik said, “and we do it because … we want to see the best for our people.
“So there’s a certain amount of responsibility that comes with it as well, but I feel it’s important to carry forward and I’m just very honoured to have the opportunity to do it.”
Most importantly, Kyikavichik said, the name change is an act of reclaiming the Gwich’in language and traditional names and imbuing them into everyday life, something he wants to see more of in communities.
Stories of the Elders
Revitalizing Gwich’in ways of life is one of the Gwich’in Tribal Council’s top priorities, according to Kyikavichik.
Its Department of Cultural Heritage has a mandate to preserve and promote Gwich’in culture, knowledge, and language, and has undertaken a number of projects in recent years to accomplish this. A digital map outlining heritage sites and traditional place names throughout the Gwich’in settlement region was launched in 2015, and department staff have been sharing photos of past research projects on Facebook.
In December 2020, the department released a book capturing the oral histories of 23 Gwich’in Elders, titled Our Whole Gwich’in Way of Life Has Changed. The book marked the culmination of 20 years of interviews, research, and translation.
Sharon Snowshoe, executive director of the department, said the book is intended to serve as a bridge between generations and carry on the Elders’ legacies.
“The gift of the stories the Elders gave us was remarkable,” she said. “If you look at the book, you’ll learn about the Elder and how they live their life and traditional knowledge.”
Most of the Elders included in the book – all but one of those included have since passed away – spoke Gwich’in as their first language and were encouraged to tell their stories in Gwich’in when interviewed.
Snowshoe said the book is a means of preserving the language.
“Our language is endangered, so we want to keep it alive,” she said. “There’s lots of information in there that the younger people could learn about. It’s just a gift from the Elders to the younger people.”
While the book was published in English, many Gwich’in phrases and place names remain untranslated.
Learning about the place names and their meanings is important to Chief Kyikavichik.
“Many of our words have an expanded meaning, and it’s difficult to explain that in English,” he said.
“When our people not only understand Gwich’in place names but also are able to use it, and when we have our people talking Gwich’in out on the land, we always say that’s incredibly powerful because that’s how we’ve always lived.”
Our Whole Gwich’in Way of Life Has Changed has been distributed to schools and band councils in the Gwich’in region. Copies have been shared with family members of the Elders featured. Others can purchase it at the Yellowknife Book Cellar or through the publisher, University of Alberta Press.
Kyikavichik keeps a copy in his office. His jijii or grandfather, Peter Kay Sr, is one of the Elders included.
“It really brought me back to when I was a young boy, listening to him tell a story,” he said. “Reading this, I could almost hear him talking. It was really powerful for me.”
Kyikavichik encouraged others to read the book too, particularly Gwich’in youth.
“It’s really important that young and old alike do what they can to try to spend time with a lot of our knowledge keepers within our communities, to try to understand how we lived in the past, because there are just so many incredible lessons we get that still apply today,” he said.
“Principles around planning, respect and care for the land. Those are just fundamental principles to how people survived, and I think that’s how we are going to be successful going into the future.”