Growing up, I was told that as a Shiwak of Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, NL, our name had not always been Shiwak. My family told me that an outsider—either a doctor or Hudson’s Bay Company prefect—could neither pronounce nor spell Sikoak and instead gave us the surname “Shiwak” in the official records, census and HBC files. The name stuck. As a child in a remote community, pre-internet, I had little-to-no recorded evidence of this being the case, but our oral histories knew this to be true.
In fact, I did not see recorded evidence of our name change until I was first shown a picture of my late great-uncle, John Shiwak. He was a renowned sniper in World War I, serving as a member of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. In the only two pictures in my family’s possession, his name has been recorded on the photograph as “L. Corporal John Shiwak (Sikoak).” As the years passed, I searched through avenues such as the Internet and great-uncle John’s war records and found that in official transcripts regarding his service, “Sikoak” was almost always included. This led me to believe that in his time the name “Sikoak” was still fresh in the memory of my family members, almost as if it had been their name early in life, only to be changed as they aged.
As an Inuk of mixed heritage, I have always struggled with my sense of identity. Although I live my life as an Inuk man, I have contended with the fact that I do not physically appear to be an Inuk, resulting in a sense of imposter syndrome. I felt this even more so as my art practice evolved and changed with time, growing from a teenager drawing mostly heavy metal icons, dragons and grim reaper related themes, to trying to capture stories from my parents, life around me and my reconnection to my long-lost spirituality. As I developed as an artist, I found that Iintroduced myself more and more to others by saying “my name is Jason Shiwak, although my family name was Sikoak at one point and was changed due to the effects of colonialism.” Often the response—especially from other Inuit—would be to ask me, “why don’t you change it back?”
Jason Sikoak The Hunter (n.d.) Pen and ink 91.4 x 121.9 cm Courtesy the Newfoundland Quarterly Online
This question plagued me for a long time, so one day I decided that it was time to make the change. It only took me more than 40 years to come to this decision, but I knew that I was ready to pursue a legal name change.
The process as a whole was not that taxing, and only involved filling out a few government forms to correct a mistake that the colonial powers from the past had made. The cost, though, was disconcerting, as I was quite impoverished at the time. I even tweeted at our current Prime Minister, trying to instigate a process to make reverting back to our traditional names free of charge as a part of #reconciliation (or perhaps, #wreckonciliation).
With the government red tape out of the way, I began to experience anxiety regarding the process and my family’s response. What would they think of this change? We were Shiwaks. Our father was a Shiwak. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was doing the right thing. Somewhere in this process, however, I decided that I needed to do this for me. I needed this to reclaim a portion of myself that had been lost well before I, or even my father, was born.
A few years on and I am living without regret. I introduce myself with pride as Jason Sikoak. I feel empowered to be signing my creations as a Sikoak. And I think that my dad, were he alive, would have been proud of me for taking this giant leap. In just a little over two years, if all goes well, I will feel extra proud that my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Concordia University will state that it has been awarded to Jason Sikoak. As the older generation of my community often says, that when something is “on paper,” it’s real.
I live my life with this name on paper, as an artist and in my everyday life. This is empowering; this is my way of reclaiming something that was stolen from me and from generations who came before me. But with or without the official name change, the aspect of my identity of which I am most certain is this:
Uvunga Jason Sikoak.