I humbly dedicate this blog to my grandfather, Bill, who I never met but wish I did. Sunday,
February 4 th , 2018 was the anniversary of his death. Some people think that Indigenous names have no significance or irrelevance. However, such is not the case, as they do have significance and they are relevant to Indigenous people’s identity as they carry the name proudly. The story behind the Blackfoot name, “kya yiina” or “Bear Chief” was told to me by my older brother.
A long, long time ago a group of warriors went on a raiding party and in the subsequent battle with the enemy, one of them got wounded. As they were heading back to their camp many miles away with the man that was wounded. They soon realized that he was impeding their journey back home. After a few miles, they decided to leave him behind and left him propped up against a tree with his weapons beside him to fend off any trouble he might encounter. After the others left, he decided that he would defend himself to the death whether it was an animal or human that came upon him. After several days went by, a bear came out of the woods and without hesitation, he took out his knife prepared to defend himself. The bear slowly approached him and as he was ready to use the knife the bear started to lick the wound on his knee. For several days, he allowed the bear, who came out of the forest of trees, to lick his wound. For several days, this went on and he started to see improvement in the wound as it slowly shrunk in size, and the pain and discomfort in his knee shrunk as well. And the bear continued to come out and lick it until the wound on his knee completely disappeared. The bear’s continuous licking had healed it. After a while, the bear finally spoke to him. He told him that he had healed him and it was his turn to return the favor. The bear related to him that he was getting old and knew that his time was coming to leave this world. He went on to instruct him that once he dies that he must skin him, take his hide and to wear it. He was also instructed to lead his clan of bears that he would be leaving behind. And from that day forward he is to be the Chief of the Bears or “Kyayiina” or “Bear Chief”. This is the significance of the
name Bear Chief.
The name Bear Chief will be carried on so long as there are people still alive to bear the name and the story associated with it will also be carried on by people who choose to share it with others.
To this day, I am proud of the name that I carry but the pride has not always been there. I used to be ashamed of my last name as a result of the residential school experience where we were made to be ashamed of our language as well as our culture. The shame associated with it continued into my post-residential school days. Case in point, when I started my upgrading at Alberta Vocational Centre in 1980, but now called Bow Valley College, I had my first taste of my shame about my name. The first day of class when our names are called out to see if you are present or not, the teacher called out my name, Roy Bear Chief, and I could hear some snickering in the back from some non-Indigenous students who were making fun of my name. The shame came back hard and subsequent first classes left me with my heart pounding and much anxiety waiting for my name to be called, as well as waiting for snickers in the background. It took many instances of those moments that I had to endure to get through a simple process of hearing my name and saying, “here”.
“Kya yiina” or “Bear Chief” was my grandfather, William (Bill). He was born on the Blackfoot reserve in 1869 and passed away February 4th, 1944. My brother told me through a story about him after a long visit back in the summer of 2016. According to my older brother’s recollection, my brother as a young boy before residential schooling, our grandfather was adopted by a non-Indigenous family consisting of a mother and her son. The son found my grandfather on his way back to the US after delivering goods to the reserve. He heard some crying and found our grandfather with a blanket around him. He took him home and to make a long story short, the family adopted him. My brother said that Grandfather Bill had schooling that was equivalent to High School and University today. That was the reason when he decided to go back to the reserve and subsequently, served as a Scout and an interpreter. Apparently, when he became of age, he decided to leave his adopted family without notice to them but he did leave his bedroom neat and tidy, according to my brother’s story. He eventually made his way back to the reserve. According to the story, he was on the train that took him home to the town of Gleichen which is just across the tracks from the reserve. When he was getting off, a bunch of Blackfoot men were standing around to see who is getting off the train. Grandfather Bill got off all dressed up in a suit and hat. Some of the men spoke in Blackfoot and said that he looked funny and turned and started walking away. Grandfather spoke after them in Blackfoot and said, it is me, Kya yiina.
My grandfather subsequently married Minnie Dog Child and they had three children, Billy Bear Chief (1891-1906); Mabel Bear Chief (1895-1945); and Leonard Walker Bear Chief (1908-1978).
My father is Walker who also served as an Interpreter until he retired in 1973. Even though he retired, people kept coming to the house to interpret letters for them. He didn’t mind, as a matter of fact, I saw the satisfaction on his face after he finished.
After I became the Tribal Manager for Siksika in 2011, a lady told me that when she heard that I was the Tribal Manager, she immediately thought of my late father who served as an
interpreter. In other words, I was an interpreter, too. In Blackfoot, we say “Ohtoo kisah taah” or interpreter.
I am proud of my last name (Bear Chief) as well as have followed in my grandfather, Bill and my father, Walker’s footsteps to serve as an interpreter for Siksika. What a feeling, feeling pride in oneself is such a rush as it flows through the veins and touches the heart and soul!