What’s in a (First Encounters) Name?

Now here’s a problem I’ve been trying to work out when thinking about our game First Encounters, coming out in a couple months time. I thought I might as well put it out there to see if I can get any feedback from all you knowledgeable readers.  The issue that’s been on my mind for the past few weeks is the whole concept of names. Specifically, the particular names of cultural groups.  Now let me clarify.  As you all know (well, if you’ve been reading this blog, of course), the past few weeks I’ve been working on research for First Encounters, our awesome game which revolves around the initial contact between Europeans and Canada’s First Peoples. We’re looking at four groups of people in the two distinct time periods of those first encounters, i.e. the Vikings and Northern Canada’s First Peoples circa 1000 CE, and the French and Eastern Canada’s First Peoples in the 16th century CE. The player plays the game as a member of one of those four cultures trying to make his/her settlement prosper by expanding his/her relationship with the contrasting culture of that particular time period. Cool, right?

Alright. Back to the point I was making earlier about names – let me try to get this right without over-thinking it. Maybe then you’ll see what I mean about trying to wrap my head around this.  Lets start with the 1500s. So France is called France because the term Francia in Latin means “country of the Franks”. From there derives the term French, i.e. the people from France. Easy enough. When the French arrived in North America, they started naming the people they met using terms that they thought appropriate. (Now lets not get into defining what the French – or any colonizing power at that time- understood as appropriate. There’s enough discussion there for another blog post. Or heck, an entire book.)  One of the first groups of people Cartier met on the east coast were the Mi’kmaq (a term popularized by the British meaning “my kin-friends” in the Mi’kmaq language), which was a group of people that the French had originally called Souriquois. The ‘Souriquois’, in turn, actually self-identified as L’nuk – which means “The People”.  Similarly, the Iroquois people with which the French interacted called themselves the Haudenosaunee – meaning “The People of the Long Houses”; yet the French were likely the ones who popularised the term ‘Iroqouis’, a term whose origin is not 100 percent clear. Is this making sense?

Okay. Lets move on to the previous time period, circa 1000 CE. The Vikings are people from Northern Europe, (in particular, but not limited to, the Scandinavian part) and are known as Vikings because they used to go a-Viking, an action word meaning to go out on voyages looking to trade, or raid and plunder if that’s what they felt like doing.  Did they consider themselves to be Vikings? Likely not. They were the “Norsemen” who are today linked to the period in history which is known as the “Viking Age”, a time of Viking (or Norse?) expansion between the 8th and 11th centuries CE.  When they arrived in Vinland, or what is today thought of as Newfoundland, they came in contact with a group of people they called Skraelings – which is in fact a derogatory term meaning “little wretches” or “ugly”. These people were very likely the Dorset people, or maybe even the Thule people (depending on the exact location and time period), who are the great ancestors of today’s Inuit, previously known in Canada as Eskimos, which is again not a flattering term that means “raw meat eaters”, a name reportedly given to them by the Mi’kmaq – err, L’nuk people.

Now what I’m getting at with all this is that it just gets a bit complicated when thinking of names for the First Encounters cultures.  If we want to tell it like it was, then what names do we use for the people when they identify themselves? Does a Viking character say “Greetings! My name is Eric, a Viking warrior!”, or would it be more accurate to say “Greetings! My name is Eric, a Norseman who has come a-Viking!” ? Or maybe he should just say “Greetings!”, and leave it at that. (Let’s not get into the whole language barrier thing right now- check out my previous post on that). These are valid questions that must be asked (and maybe sometimes over-thought) if we’re serious about making this a great game and getting it as historically accurate as possible.  An interesting point to mention too is that as a supplement to the game we’re developing lesson plans for teachers out of these kinds of polemical discussions, but I’ll talk more about these lessons in a future post. For now, if you’ve got any suggestions or questions for us that have anything to do with these types of topics, we’re all ears. Feel free to drop us a line.


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