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2 NAMES AS PEOPLE 30 A Tsimshian once said to me, “People are nothing. They’re not important at all. It’s the names that are really real.” While human bodies with their prosaic English names—inscribed on birth certi ficates and gravestones—are mortal, transient things, the hereditary “Indian names” that Tsimshian bodies wear are immortal, perduring social personages. As Jay Miller has succinctly put it, “For the Tsimshian, human descendants circulated through a series of fixed identities, based in a household, whose pedigrees and characteristics were described in hereditary chronicles where these names engaged in specific tasks at speci fic locations” (1997:129; see also Kan 1989:71). Names link members of a Tsimshian lineage to the past and to the territory on which that past unfolded. A Tsimshian name holder shares his or her name with a succession of matrilineally related predecessors stretching back to the ancient historical events that describe the origins of the name, of the house lineage, and of the lineage’s rights to territories and resources. The anchor of the ancient Tsimshian system of land tenure is the potlatch feast (which Tsimshians call yaawk in their language and in English the feast), where hereditary name-titles are bequeathed from one generation to the next. A chiefly name is not so much an appellation by which someone is known as it is a mandate to authority and a deed of sovereign land title, much in the manner of a royal crown. A Tsimshian name marks membership in a strictly bounded unilineal descent group that, under the authority of its highest name, its chief, owns a specific territory and its resources as well as intangible property such as heraldic privileges. This ownership is renewed and recognized by successive generations at feasts, and the lineage’s historical relationship to the land is remembered and recounted in the lineage’s chronicles, called adawx.1 Traditional Tsimshian personhood is constructed on radically different premises than is personhood in white North American society, and these premises are discernible in the way names are inhabited, bequeathed, and validated in Tsimshian society today. This realization guides my exploration of the reproduction of social personages through names in Tsimshian society. As with the potlatch, so with the core principles of subjectivity, Mauss developed, in 1938, the most penetrating and lasting intuitions from the Northwest Coast ethnographic record. Drawing first on Frank Hamilton Cushing’s example of names treasured and transmitted within Zuñi matrilineal corporate descent groups—and acknowledging the affinity with Northwest Coast onomasty as reported by Boas—Mauss writes that “on the one hand, the clan is conceived of as being made up of a certain number of persons, in reality of ‘characters’ (personnages). On the other hand, the role of all of them is really to act out, each insofar as it concerns him, the prefigured totality of the life of the clan” (Mauss 1985:5). In shifting to Kwakwakawakw (southern Kwakiutl) examples, Mauss describes how, in the Kwakwakawakw potlatch, “from classes and clans, ‘human persons’ adjust to one another and how, from these, the gestures of the actors in the drama fit together. Here all the actors are theoretically the sum total of all free men” (7; italics in original). Moreover, in the potlatch, where names are bequeathed and assumed through lavish and highly politicized circulations of wealth, “what is at stake . . . is more than the prestige and the authority of the chief and the clan. It is the very existence of both of these and of the ancestors reincarnated in their rightful successors, who live again in the bodies of those who bear their names, whose perpetuation is assured by the ritual in each of its phases. The perpetuation of things and spirits is only guaranteed by the perpetuating of names of individuals, of persons” (9). (This is a point Mauss felt he had not made sufficiently well in The Gift [1967]; 1985:23n.5.) Mauss’s portrayal of the potlatch as the reembodiment of an original, ancestral human community has been employed vividly by a later generation of armchair Wakashanists, who, like Mauss, attempted to bring Names as People 31 to Boas’s material the kind of theoretical boldness from which Boas himself recoiled. Goldman (1975), for example, interprets Kwakwakawakw winter ceremonials as literally recreating the original human community of named ancestors, and he conflates the processes of reincarnation and name transmission, a distinction that Boas...


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