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Photo: Centro de Estudios Multidisciplinarios Aymara (CEM-Aymara)
Photo: Centro de Estudios Multidisciplinarios Aymara (CEM-Aymara)

Recovering indigenous names

published 30 August 2022 updated 4 August 2022
written by:

My name is Kantuta, and I am proud to have an Aymara name that identifies me and represents my community. When it rained, my grandmother told me that children who die without a name go to Tata Granizo. Next to him, children make round ice that falls from the sky like hail. “Nameless children must make hail until their hands bleed. That is why parents need to name their children,” my grandmother used to say.

For Aymara people, the rutucha consolidates the names of the girls and boys. The rutucha is the first haircut done in the first year. In this ritual, family members cut a lock of hair while giving a gift to the girl or boy. In the end, the godfather and godmother of rutucha save the gifts for the children’s future.

Although Bolivia is a country with a predominantly indigenous population and 36 indigenous languages, many people with Aymara names suffer racism daily. Discrimination and assimilation influence the loss of indigenous names. Therefore, promoting indigenous names is central to recovering and strengthening our history, language and identity.

Cultural ethnocide: why are indigenous names not used?

Indigenous names were denied to eliminate individual identity and collective identity as peoples. Colonial and post-colonial states prohibited indigenous names as part of the cultural ethnocide of the Aymara people. However, during the 1781 rebellion, Julián Apasa, the Aymara leader of the uprising, named himself Túpac Katari in honour of two previous leaders: Tomás Katari and Túpac Amaru. Túpac (Quechua) means bright; Katari (Aymara) means serpent or mighty river that carries gold. For the Aymara and Quechua peoples, by taking this name, Túpac Katari made an act of reaffirmation of indigenous history and identity. But, the settlers characterized Túpac Katari as violent and without compassion.

Current society views indigenous peoples through the same lenses: the noble savage and the brute savage. Both visions impose racist characteristics on indigenous peoples; they see us with one of these lenses when we have indigenous names. The brute savage view sees indigenous peoples as poor, drunk, lazy, and dangerous. Historically, indigenous peoples had to abandon their names to be considered people and citizens. The requirements for citizenship according to the Bolivian Constitution (1843) are to be registered in the civil registry, have a paid job (except domestic servant) and know how to read and write. Indigenous youth were prohibited from learning and working for pay.

Forced evangelization caused parents to baptize their children with non-indigenous names. Previously, the church asked for offerings and forced labour. After eliminating the encomienda, the church became the only civil registration entity, replacing the encomienda with high prices for births, baptisms or marriages. Currently, forced evangelization is evident in Aymara’s sayings that characterize unbaptized children as weak. During storms, my grandmother hid me and took care that I did not leave the room because lightning Illapa or Tata Santiago takes unbaptized children.

At the same time, the vision of the noble savage reduces indigenous cultures to cultural spectacles. In the case of indigenous names, these are recovered – generally by third parties other than indigenous peoples – to promote products or services without respecting the sacred meaning of the name.

These actions of discrimination and assimilation are the leading causes of the denial of indigenous names. Several parents avoid using indigenous names for their daughters and sons and thus prevent them from suffering discrimination. However, many young indigenous people seek to recover their names and thus recover their identity.

Why are indigenous names important for identity?

Recovering indigenous names is part of the reconstruction of identity and the claim of linguistic and territorial rights. Indigenous names convey the person’s personality and future. The newborn’s name marks her future personality because it relates to the environment’s characteristics, cosmology, solar movement and ancestral deities.

Names are also part of language recovery. Since the 1970s, as a product of indigenous movements, particularly in Bolivia, the indianistas, a movement of struggle based on the recovery of identity, have been recovering indigenous names by naming their sons and daughters, marking with this their indigenous identity.

The name is the firmness of the collective identity as peoples and nations. The names invite us to reconnect with our territories. Indigenous territories are living spaces where each community subject is a thread, so language is the art of weaving those threads. For example, surnames originate from the deities of water, hills, pampas, and animals, which are indigenous peoples’ sacred protectors. Thus, the names reflect a town’s identity and relationship with the territory. For this reason, young indigenous people must exercise their right to have their name.

What rights protect indigenous names?

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) offers protection for indigenous names based on the right to non-discrimination (Article 2) and non-assimilation (Article 8). It also mentions that “ indigenous peoples have the right to attribute names to their communities, places and people and maintain them” (Article 13). In other words, having an indigenous name is a collective and individual right.

How can we support indigenous names?

Sustainable Development Goal 4 guarantees equitable and inclusive education for all. Teachers, assistant educators, guidance counsellors and education staff should be respectful of indigenous names and their significance. Teachers are the most influential role models for developing students. In this regard, teachers’ support and embrace of indigenous names builds a stronger, more inclusive education. Finally, joining forces to engage indigenous educators in education policies will create a future towards the teaching of indigenous languages in schools.

For my part, I am dedicated to learning more about my culture and identity. The first step I took to love my indigenous heritage was through my name. Today, I am proud that my name represents a part of the Aymara people. My name, and other indigenous names, strengthen our identity and history. Having an indigenous name also enriches the diversity of cultures and encourages respect among them. Let’s walk to a world without discrimination where the meaning of our names is respected.

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The International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples is commemorated annually on 9 August to raise awareness about the rights of Indigenous Peoples globally. This year’s theme, The Role of Indigenous Women in the Preservation and Transmission of Traditional Knowledge, is an opportunity to acknowledge and reflect on the different ways education systems impact the rights of Indigenous Peoples, particularly women and girls. On this occasion, Education International is launching a blog series featuring the voices and perspectives of Indigenous Peoples and their allies from across the world. The series explores the ways Indigenous education experts, activists, researchers, and teachers, are working to ensure quality education that centres Indigenous knowledge systems.

If you would like to contribute a blog to this series, please contact Lainie.Keper[at]ei-ie.org.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.