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Who We Are

by Cree Paul 5 months ago in humanity

How My Name Has Shaped Me

Pictured left to right: My older sister, Tannika, Grandpa Lloyd, and me. Summer of 2000 in Augusta, Montana.

The Part Where I Was Taught to Be Proud of Where I Come From

My mom imagined my grandfather was asking me, “What’s your name,” for the hundredth time with a grin on his face.

She was sure of this because she would hear me sweetly say, “Cwee,” as I held the phone up to my ear. I was just learning to talk and couldn’t pronounce the “r” in ‘Cree’ just yet.

Long distance phone calls from my mom to my grandpa were something of a weekly ritual. And when my sister and I got a bit older, Mom started taking us on road trips to visit him at his home in Augusta, Montana. I remember Grandpa telling us stories about the Chippewa Cree, about our tribe. He spoke to us about how our people were slaughtered, brutalized, and stripped of their culture and traditions. Everything they knew, everything that made them who they were, was stolen from them. Generalized and sugar coated versions of these stories became a few paragraphs in history books just to be buried and forgotten in the end. But Lloyd Paul brought the true stories of our people to life.

My Grandpa Lloyd passed away when I was nine years old. I grew to really miss the visits to Montana and those weekly phone calls that reminded me of what my darling name meant to him. I grew to really miss my grandpa entirely.

The Part Where I Wanted to Change My Identity

The year that followed my grandpa’s death, I was enrolled in a new school, in a new town, in an entirely new state. Whether it was a music teacher or an art teacher or a gym teacher, all of the elective instructors struggled with my unique name in some form or another during my first week there. This was unexpected, seeing as though everyone I had come across in the four schools I attended previously said my name just fine.

Beaver Valley Elementary was a different story. I remember one teacher was hesitant to say my name, almost afraid to even try. “Cray,” she called out as if it were a question. The kids in my class snickered, and I sank in my chair, wishing I could just disappear somehow. I corrected her pronunciation, but when she continued to struggle to properly say it, I told the thirty-something-year-old, “It rhymes with ‘free’,” to simplify even more. There were other teachers who mistakenly assumed my last name was somehow mixed up with my first name at registration, and they called out “Paul” during roll call instead. So naturally, kids ate this stuff up and began to call me Paul on a regular basis.

I can say from personal experience kids can be cruel. The name calling evolved when some classmates discovered my first name combined with the first initial of my last name spelt the word “creep.” So it was out with the old and in the with new. Calling me Paul was no more, and to my dismay, calling me Creep was all the rage. And in addition to that, kids would walk up to me on the playground to ask, “What kind of name is Cree,” as though they were repulsed by it.

Kids laughing at the mis-pronunciation of my name was one thing, but my peers tainting it with an ugly word weighed on me for weeks and weeks. I recall bringing this up to my mom one evening after school. She was standing at the stove, concentrating on stirring the dinner she was preparing for us.

“Mom?” I looked up at her.

“Yes, baby?” She didn’t break her gaze from the pot on the stove.

“Mom, kids at school keep making fun of my name. So I was wondering,” I hesitated, unsure of what she would think, “I was wondering if I could go by one of my middle names from now on? Is it okay if I ask to be called Renee?”

My mom’s response was, to my surprise, nonchalant. “Sure, I don’t care what you choose to be called at school. As long as you like it, I’m fine with it.”

I was so relieved. “Ok! So my name is Renee from now on.”

“Um, no.” My mom’s focus was now drawn to me.

The joy drained from my face. “What? You said-“

My mom stopped me, “No. I said, ‘I don’t care what you want to be called at school.’ But I’m calling you the name I gave you. In this house, you are Cree.”

I was frustrated with her. “But, why?”

“Because I named you Cree for a reason.”

The Part Where I Was Reminded to Stand Tall

Later that night, I contemplated my mother’s words. I thought about her telling me that she had always known what my name would be. I thought of those phone calls with Grandpa Lloyd and the stories he told. I thought about how important it was to him that the world recognize that Native Americans exist, that we are still here. And with that, I knew my mom was right. I refused to allow white children shame me into thinking I had to have a name like them to be respected; the same way the white man made my great grandparents feel they had to assimilate to white culture to be accepted.

The teasing never stopped—not until after my middle school years, at least. But my resentment towards my mother’s choice in naming me went away. I never entertained the idea of being called something different ever again. I love my name. Even more so, I adore the story of how it came to be mine. I catch myself thinking, How beautiful is it that I was named after my people? A group of people who built themselves up from ruins, after being treated like they were unworthy of existing at all.

My name is Cree Paul. It comes from a young woman’s lips who sought to make her Native American father proud. It means respect and honor, a single mother’s dream and ambition to instill strength within her youngest daughter, a precious nod to who we are.

Cree Paul
Cree Paul
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