Thursday, October 27, 2016

Writing Outside Your Culture: Naming Characters, Part II

As mentioned in previous posts, the main character in Creating Esther is an Ojibwe girl who goes to an Indian boarding school in 1895. The practice was to “civilize” the students by giving each of them a traditionally white name. So I had to find two names for my protagonist—an Ojibwe name and a “white” one.

One way that superintendents and teachers chose white names was to compile a list from the Bible and assign the next one. Running through some Biblical names in my head, I settled on “Esther” because it just sounded right. But there was another reason, as well. By the end of the book, my protagonist has made some decisions that put her on the path to saving her people, which is what the original Esther did. My Esther will do it less dramatically and as one of many forces, but the concept works.

Coming up with an Ojibwe name was more challenging. I started by going to one of those baby naming websites and looking for Ojibwe girls’ names. I liked “Keezheekoni” because it supposedly means “burning fire,” and my protagonist has a fiery temperament. Unfortunately, based on the sources I found, it appears to be hard to pronounce.

There was an even bigger problem. While most of the baby name sources list it as a Chippewa name, a couple list it as Cheyenne. Worse, I couldn’t find any of its roots in either A Dictionary of the Ojibway Language by Frederic Baraga or A Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe by John D. Nichols and Earl Nyholm. So even though I liked the look and the purported meaning of “Keezheekoni,” I ended up rejecting it.

But the meaning worked well for my story, so I checked both dictionaries for the Ojibwe word for “fire.” Father Baraga’s dictionary listed “ishkote,” while the more modern one used “ishkode.” One letter different, but which is correct?

They probably both are. Ojibwe was originally a spoken language with no written equivalent, and the people who tried to write it down used various spellings. In Red World and White: Memories of a Chippewa Boyhood, author John Rogers says that his new baby brother was named Ahmeek, meaning beaver. But the Concise Dictionary spells beaver a-m-i-k.

In the end, I decided to go with the more modern spelling and name my protagonist Ishkode.

It wasn’t an easy choice, but names matter.


Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. Desert Jewels is searching for a home, and Creating Esther has just begun circulating to publishers. You can learn more about Kathryn at

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