Julian Brave NoiseCat gives the 2022 Commencement Charge of the Class. April, 2022.
And now, I’m delighted to introduce our keynote Commencement Speaker, Julian Brave NoiseCat.
A member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen (“Tsk-es-ken”) and a descendant of the Lil’Wat (“Leel-Wat”) Nation of Mount Currie, Julian is a writer and filmmaker currently based in the Pacific Northwest. He is a brilliant thinker who works at the intersection of climate journalism and advocacy for indigenous rights.
NoiseCat's work has been recognized with numerous awards including the 2022 American Mosaic Journalism Prize, which honors "excellence in long-form, narrative or deep reporting on stories about underrepresented and/or misrepresented groups in the present American landscape."
In 2021, he was named to the TIME100 Next list of emerging leaders for his work at the center of the climate crisis.
Julian, it’s my great honor to welcome you here to Michigan.
Weyt-k xwexweytep. Julian Brave NoiseCat ren skwekwst.
Ren ky'eœy te skwest re Alice New’sket. Te Stswecemc m-tstekwes.
Ren xp'eœyœy te skwest re Harry Peters. Qelmucweske Nkasusa. Te Samahquam m-tstekwes.
Secwecwpemc-ken ell St'itlimix-ken. Te Tsq'escen re tste7kwen.
Le7 ren pupsmen ne7elye tek tm’cw, w7ec re Anishinaabe-ulucw.
I know what you're thinking.
What the heck did that Native guy with that crazy Native-ass name just say?
I've been thinking about names and naming. To have a name. To give a name. What is in a name? What is a name? And what is it to name?
It's hard not to think about these things when your parents and ancestors give you a name like Julian Brave NoiseCat.
Whenever someone checks my driver's license or reads my byline or has to listen to me think out loud into a microphone, like you all are so graciously doing today, they often stop, squint their eyes and ask: Is that really your name?
I think for some, it's the first time they've encountered a real-life Indian. I'm sure they've heard Indian names before. You know, like Sitting Bull. Crazy Horse.
Or maybe they remember John Red Corn from King of the Hill.
But when a real-life Indian is staring you down, I often feel like there's some curiosity on the other side of your gaze, some desire to inspect my difference.
Like maybe on some gut level, people understand that there must be some significance to a name.
And indeed, there is.
Sometimes my family and I will sit around and tell stories about Indians we know and remember who had big names.
Growing up in Oakland there was a family, who were often unhoused, with a last name that could be rendered alternatively as ÒShot with Two Arrows, Shot Twice or just Shots.
It was as though their very name, like their family, was restless. It moved here. It moved there. It did not want to stay put. It did not want to be singular. And it did not want to be made legible to the state.
My dad remembers two uqwis brothers and best friends who used to run around the rez together in the sixties and seventies named Klobby and Konky. Except in our Shuswap-English pidgin their names were rendered with Salish phonology, a glottal stop placed after the 'k': lobby and Konky. They're gone now, but when you say their names your palette decolonizes, at least for a syllable or two.
And of course, there are some Indians whose names received rather unfortunate English translations. One of the Crow scouts who rode with General George Armstrong Custer was named Mahr-Itah-Thee-Dah-Ka-Roosh. History remembers him as White Man Runs Him.
It's hard not to think about names when you're an Indian.
We are peoples with big and often powerful names who understood the power of naming the power of the name one carries and also the power of the names we give to others. To humans, to places and to the other-than-human world around us.
The University of Michigan invited me to stand up and offer words upon your graduation. I am humbled by their request. It was not so long ago that I was one of you. Sitting down there, looking up and listening on my big day. Not talking. Not speechifying. Just waiting for my name to be called.
So, when I, a writer, a filmmaker, an activist and an indigenous man, thought about what I should say, I thought about words and how much they matter. And about names, which in all the galaxy of words are a particularly strong constellation.
Today, I want to talk to you about choosing words well and with care. And about the significance of names.
I want to talk about names because for hundreds of years the United States, Canada and many other nations tried to wipe Indigenous names off the face of this earth.
When my ancestors were baptized and sent to schools built to eradicate their Indian-ness, church and government officials changed their names.
I'm not talking about bestowing a nickname or adding an honorific or making something easier to pronounce in English. I'm talking about the wholesale eradication of names. The dismantling of nomenclature. The deletion of identities from the historical record and eventually from all human memory.
When they baptized my ancestors, the missionaries would give us Indians just one name, a first name. Not too far back in my family tree, I have an ancestor who the missionaries must've called Indian Archie. In our community there was an Indian Frank and an Indian Bob. An Indian Pete and an Indian Dick.
Many of my relatives still walk around with those first names for last names.
And as the missionaries erased our names and eradicated our identities they submitted our children to systematic cultural deprogramming. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has deemed this a cultural genocide.
At one of the schools my family was sent to, St. Joseph's Mission in Williams Lake, British Columbia, a ground penetrating radar search recently identified over 90 potential unmarked burials. At another, the Kamloops Indian Residential School, a similar search identified over 200.
Canada operated some 150 schools like St. Joseph's and Kamloops. The United States operated more than 350.
General Richard Henry Pratt, who founded the first American Indian boarding school in the United States described the goal of these schools as to Kill the Indian and save the man
All the Indian there is in the race should be dead, said Pratt.
In this continent-wide campaign to kill the Indian in the child, we are now learning that thousands of actual Indian children perished that not long after the church and government took their names, many of those Native babies, toddlers, children, adolescents and teenagers, were themselves dead and in the ground.
In the traditions of my Secwepemc and St'itlimix peoples' names could either be inherited or earned. And names are remembered. Retold through story and song by descendants who honor our ancestors by keeping their names alive.
Some names, like the last name I carry, NoiseCat or New’sket as it was originally pronounced marked descent and relationship to ancestors. I venture to guess that, like me, many if not most of you carry last names that mark your descent and your relationship to your ancestors too. In that way, we are not so different.
Others Secwepemc names, though, like the one carried by my ancestor Tyenmescen, recognized a person's deeds on this earth. Tyenmescen is a combination of two words: tyenem, meaning to go around and scenc, meaning rock.
As it was told to me, my ancestor Tyenmescen was a war chief who confronted settlers and goldminers coming into the Stswecemc peoples' country. As the intruders went around and through a rocky pass Tyenmescen would impress upon these squatters and fortune-seekers the importance of abiding by our Indigenous laws.
I feel lucky to know that story because for my people, to name someone or something was to be able to tell their story. To endeavor to tell their truth. And in many instances, if you could name someone or something you might also know how to sing its song.
The morning before the Williams Lake First Nation announced that over 90 potential unmarked graves had been identified at St. Josephs, I had a sweat ceremony with the Williams Lake chief and a few other men.
And in that sweat lodge, a St'itlimix man sang the song of my grandfather's grandfather, Nkasusa, the hereditary chief from Samahquam whose tax name was Harry Peters.
Children from Samahquam were sent to St. Joseph's and other schools. And in all likelihood, some did not return.
I acknowledge Nkasusa7 today because I hope to stand in the strength of his leadership, his legacy and his song. You see, Nkasusa7 was a celebrated leader. He was one of the chiefs who signed the 1911 Lil Wat Declaration, which read in part:
We claim that we are the rightful owners of our tribal territory. We have always lived in our country; at no time have we ever deserted it, or left it to others.
We are aware the government claims our country, like all other Indian territories but we deny their right to it. We never gave it nor sold it to them.
We speak the truth, and we speak for our whole tribe
I invoke Nkasusas words today because, like him, I am asked to speak. And when ground penetrating radar is finding the bodies of my ancestors children, children who did not have the opportunity to beget their own descendants and become ancestors in their own right voice becomes an existential responsibility.
I remember and honor Nkasusa's name so that, like him, I might carry my responsibilities in this world to myself, my ancestors, my descendants and to you all here today well.
Responsibilities. In many of the Indigenous communities I have visited, names define and carry responsibilities.
One of the men who has helped me return to our Secwepemc lands and life ways is a hereditary chief from the Esk'et First Nation named Francis Johnson Jr.
Francis spends a lot of time up in the high country hunting and down at the river fishing. Everywhere he goes, he recalls the stories and names that connect us to our places. His name, Tllexwumenesk't, means to go up high. Tllexwumenesk't is often going up into the mountains where the memories of our ancestors still live. He knows that to carry forward our ancestors memories we have to pass on the knowledge we have. That's why when he goes, Tllexwumenesk't invites his brethren, like me, to come out with him and learn.
It just so happens that before we even knew each other, Tllexwumenesk't and I both attended the same potlatch a ceremonial gathering of many songs, dances, meals and gifts held in the remote Bella Coola Valley of British Columbia. Bella Coola, a river valley cut into the Coast Mountains by retreating glaciers and rising seas, is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. There, at the mouth of the Bella Coola River in 2018, the Moody family of the Nuxalk Nation passed the title Nusmata, meaning heaven from Larry Moody Sr. to Larry Moody Jr. The name comes with the responsibility to care for his family's ancestral village site in the valley, a place the Nuxalk call Snut'li. But it also comes with the responsibility to give.
In Nuxalk culture, like many Indigenous cultures, the person who is considered wealthiest is the one who gives the most. This is the function of the potlatch.
In 2015, the elder Moody Larry Moody Sr. hit the $1 million jackpot in the provincial lottery. He used the winnings to buy cars for his brothers and a Harley for his junior. Much of the rest he put into the gifts for that potlatch: traditional foods like salmon and venison, piles and upon piles of winter blankets, original traditional art, and money. Because for many Native people, a name also comes with the responsibility to give.
A few weeks ago, I found myself at another potlatch. This one, in Sitka, Alaska, was put on by Louise Brady, a Herring Lady from the Kiks.adi clan of the Raven moiety of the Tling it Nation.
The Tling it of what is now Southeast Alaska have been harvesting herring, which they have given the name Yaaw, for at least 10,000 years, meaning Tling it ancestors started pulling herring eggs out of the ocean about the same time Mesopotamians started settling down to grow fields and raise livestock.
According to tradition, the first herring were harvested in the hair of a Kiks.adi woman, Yaaw Shaa, the first Herring Lady, who rested her head on a rock perched above the herring spawning grounds. When she rose, her inky locks were caked in the golden translucent roe of the fish. The Kik sadi were such good stewards of the herring that, in living memory, the Tling it used to be able to harvest eggs by skimming a special rake across the water
But it's not so easy to get herring eggs any more. In the latter half of the last century, the herring were incorporated into a commercial fishery, providing raw material for fertilizer, animal feed and fish food and also supplying the lucrative market for Kazunoko, a delicacy consumed by the Japanese on New Year.
For a generation, commercial fisherman fished and fished until they fished too much and herring stocks collapsed. There were once seven commercial herring fisheries in Southeast Alaska. Today there are just two, a decline that reinforces a multi-decade global trend. At present, herring have been nearly completely depleted in Japan, Norway, Nova Scotia, East England and Washington state's Puget Sound.
This is no trivial matter. Herring, it should be said, feed everything humpback whales, harbor seals, sea lions, eagles, sea gulls, halibut, salmon. And when these forage fish dwindle, other parts of the ecosystems they sustain can also falter.
At the potlatch for the Yaaw the Tling it name for herring Louise Brady, a Kik.sadi Herring Lady, Yaaw Shaa, challenged all in attendance to imagine what it might look like to celebrate, protect and give to the herring as those little silver fish give and have always given to the Tling it and to many others. Louise asked us to consider the responsibilities she holds as a Herring Lady. And in turn, what responsibilities we hold as people who have heard and considered the gift of that story and the name of the Herring Lady. Because names bestow responsibilities on listeners and witnesses too.
Now you might be wondering: Why is this guy going on, and on about names?
Well. For centuries, innumerable policies, practices and processes were devised and enacted to rid society of names and responsibilities like the ones I have just named and recalled.
What I am humbly suggesting is that we remember and consider the power of names. That naming matters. That as good students, citizens and policymakers you are going to be confronted with all sorts of realities, problems and challenges out there in this broken world we have inherited.
As you go about your world, just as Tllexwumenesk't goes about his from high up on the mountain to way down by the river, I would suggest that you seek to understand, to have empathy and in due time to name what you see and encounter appropriately with words carefully considered to represent the truth about our shared planet with accuracy and respect. This is an essential responsibility.
In her award-winning book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, writes: Names are the way we humans build relationships, not only with each other, but with the living world.
This might sound like simple folk wisdom or even common sense. But our society keeps getting it wrong.
Among the many crises we face of health, of climate, of democracy we also face, I believe, a crisis of words and a crisis of naming.
Right now, Vladimir Putin, one of the most powerful men in the world is calling the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, a country led by a Jewish head of state a campaign for de-Nazification.
President Donald Trump, the former and still-aspiring leader of the free world, has described our rapidly changing climate as a hoax invented by the Chinese.
In school boards across the nation, parent activists are decrying a more accurate account of history as Critical Race Theory.
Insurrectionists dare to call themselves patriots.
For some, the common courtesy of using the gender pronouns a fellow human identifies with and prefers is considered a step too far.
And on the cable network with the largest audience on television, much of what I have just said would likely be called fake news.
If democracy is the collective expression of our views and values through votes, I wonder how much of today's dysphoria can be traced to something off kilter within ourselves. To people unmoored from place, community, social role, communal responsibility and social reciprocity. To the turmoil of workers chasing jobs and livelihoods far away from their familiar hamlets. To the young people floating through social media platforms. And the pensioners flipping through television stations. To the good traditions that are dying. To the special places that are homogenizing. To the names and responsibilities no longer given and too often forgotten.
And I wonder what our world might be like if the policymakers who took this land had let some of those traditions, responsibilities and names live. If more of us sought to remember, understand and name the parts of our humanity Indigenous and otherwise that were nearly completely annihilated.
I'm currently writing my first book and co-directing my first documentary.
And in each of those projects, I've been thinking a lot about the power and significance of naming and of names including and especially the power of my own.
You see, I once thought of names as static. As something you received at birth and came into in a flash as an adult or early-career professional.
But along my journey, advocating for climate and environmental justice in Washington D.C, reporting from Indigenous communities across North America and beyond and holding tight to survivors and relatives as we searched the ground of St. JosephÕs mission for ancestors and for answers, IÕve come to realize that names are not discovered. They're revealed and worked towards across a lifetime. And sometimes across many lifetimes, as names carry and accrue stories and songs over generations.
And so let me tell you what I'm learning about my name, Julian Brave NoiseCat, and about myself.
NoiseCat, my last name, is derived from the ancestral name New’sket.
No one remembers what New’sket means anymore. No one. I've asked my kye, my grandmother, who is a fluent speaker of my Secwepmec language, but she couldn't come up with a translation.
In an old ethnographic text, I found reference to a warrior with a similar name, New’sesken, who helped bring an abusive man to justice near the Fraser River. I thought that was pretty dope. I don't know if he was my ancestor. But part of me would like to think so.
What I do know, is that the in the 1800s the name New’sket definitely belonged to a man named Copper John from Stswecemc which is in the Cariboo region of British Columbia. And then it belonged to my great-grandmother, Alice, who raised my father when his own parents, who were all messed up from the residential school, could not.
And then, one night in 1966, when my dad was seven, Alice went out in a blizzard to look for her husband Jacob, who was drinking. And she froze to death.
After Alice was gone, there were no NoiseCats anywhere in the whole world until my father married my mother, reclaimed Alice's name and passed it on to me and my sister.
We may never know what New’sket means or to which ancestor it originally belonged. What I do know is that to be a NoiseCat is to be among the last of your name. To be a survivor dangling on the limb of a family tree they couldn't quite chop down.
Julian, my given name, connects me to my mother's late best friend Julia; to my great-grandmother Julia Krause Peters, the daughter of Nkasusa7; to my cousin Julianne who is learning our language so that she can help teach the next generation of speakers; to King Julien, King of the Kingdom of Madagascar and, if I recall from the Madagascar franchise, also the self-proclaimed King of the Central Park Zoo.
And lastly, Brave, my middle name, connects me to, of all people, my late and very white grandmother Suzanne an Irish-Jewish orphan who may not have been Native, but who understood the power of a name, who gave me a quality to aspire to in my own and who had a sense of humor insisting that her only half-Native grandchild go around being called a Brave.
Today the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan is going to call out the names of 171 graduates.
When they call out your name and put a degree in your hands, I want you to think about the ancestors who gave you that name. Maybe your parents. Their parents. Their parents before that, and back and back. I want you to think about their deeds good, bad and otherwise.
And I want you to think about your own.
To imagine what it might look like to live your life in such a way that you might become an ancestor worthy of having their name and story remembered, passed on, maybe even sung about.
To honor those who have made you who you are, so that you might go out into the world with responsibility, generosity and intention. So that someday you might name things well too.
Tsukw. Kukwstetsemc. Thank you.