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'Patrick Is Easier to Pronounce'

March 15, 1997

ASHAWAGESHEK PATRICK POUPART is an urban Indian from the Lac du Flambeau band of Ojibwa; he lives in Los Angeles. He earns a living selling beaded jewelry. He spoke to photographer MARY WENTZ about his unusual name.

I'll be 60 on March 17--St. Patrick's Day. Before I was born and even before my mother became pregnant with me, four Indian elders came to visit her. They were looking for someone named "Ashawageshek." She told them that there was no one there by that name. They said, "OK, we'll come back later to see him."

Shortly after that curious encounter, my mother became pregnant. She went to the Indian Hospital, on the Ojibwa Courte Oreilles Indian Reservation in Hayward, Wisc., which was 110 miles away from our reservation, the Lac du Flambeau, to give birth to me.

During her labor, the name "Ashawageshek" came to her, the name of the person the elders were asking about. And so she decided to give me that name, which means "Light Across the Sky" in the Ojibwa language.

I am the youngest of 13 children. The midwife came by with a birth certificate form and asked my mother for the name of her newborn son. My mother proudly replied, "Ashawageshek." The nurse looked at her and said, "That's kind of difficult for us to pronounce, much less remember. Why don't you just call him Patrick, after all, today is St. Patrick's Day and they won't forget his birthday."

My mother said, "All well and good; he will have two names." So I became known as Patrick to the English-speaking world and Ashawageshek to the Native Americans and the world of the Midewewin Grand Medicine Society or medicine people.

I had no real knowledge of the meaning of St. Patrick's Day until I grew up and left the reservation. I noticed that people wore green and had parades in observance of the holiday. One time, in Santa Monica I got up and actually joined in the St. Patrick's Day parade. After all, they were honoring the guy that I was named after.

My mother was understanding about naming me Patrick, because she realized that we're a culture within a culture. Learning different ways only enhances what we already know.

As traditional Indian people, we never had a need to record names or traditions; they were always known to us. We believed that if we had to write something down to remember it, then it wasn't worth remembering anyway.

Both names are equal to me; they describe me and I answer to them both. The name Patrick is just easier to pronounce.

In a way, some of the Irish culture parallels the Native American culture; the types of foods that they eat, their sedentary lifestyle, their folkways and most outstanding of all, their generosity.

It's possible that the midwife who delivered and named me was Irish, otherwise how would she know that St. Patrick's Day is such a special day?

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