Fort Chip author discovers true name, family and self

Fort Chip author discovers true name, family and self
Rubi Helen Shirley-Sakeskanip shows off her book alongside brothers Frank (left) and Ernie.Photo: Rubi Sakeskanip.

What’s in a name?

It’s a matter close to the heart for Rubi Helen Shirley-Sakeskanip, originally of Fort Chipewyan, who was once known as Rubi Helen Gibot before she had it legally changed.

“My dad only spoke Cree and he would say something like, ‘We are not Gibots,’ in our language,” said Sakeskanip, a member of Mikisew Cree First Nation. “I didn’t really know what he was talking about, growing up. Being in the residential school for seven years…it’s like a brainwashing and I didn’t really believe him.”

In 2008, she discovered her father, Francois, had been right all along.

“I decided to write a book about our story…It was the right time and I decided to find out who I was, where my people come from, to begin a journey of healing and reconciliation from what had happened in the residential school – the culture shock. So I began researching the name I’d been given all these years, Gibot,” Sakeskanip, 56, said. “I went to the Catholic church archives in Yellowknife and I discovered I was not a Gibot but a Sakeskanip and our name had been changed in 1863.”

It was an emotional roller coaster ride for a while after the revelation, Sakeskanip said (Shirley is her married name).

“I cried when I seen the name. I broke down. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t believed my dad. I was angry at the government. But I was also excited. I thought, ‘Oh my god, who am I?’”

Seven months of research later, which entailed plenty of travelling to comb through libraries from Calgary to Ottawa, she unearthed a giant family tree linking back to the name Sakeskanip – much thanks to finding Fort Chip’s first treaty pay list from 1899.

“I had a lot of relatives I’d never known about because we’d been disconnected…from the name change and from residential schools,” said Sakeskanip, a therapist who runs a private practice in Lillooet, BC and is currently doing her doctorate in educational leadership.

Sakeskanip recently solved one of those missing links after reading about the extensive Evans family reunion in Fort Smith in the Aug. 27 issue of Northern Journal. The Evans clan traces its lineage back to David Maskegon (Evans) from Manitoba who married Helen Sakeskanip (Gibot) in Fort Chip in 1885 – both had their names changed.

She called up Julie Lys of Fort Smith, an Evans family member who is behind much of the genealogy collections for the family, and the pair discovered they were long lost cousins. Lys even owns a copy of Sakeskanip’s book, picked up at the museum in Fort Chip.

“It’s always amazing finding a cousin. Genealogy is like a giant puzzle and it’s all coming together,” Lys said. “We found out we’re actually third cousins; we share a great-great grandfather…I know we’ll meet someday and I look forward to that.”

“Their grandmother, that Helen Sakeskanip, was a cousin to my grandfather,” Sakeskanip said. “My grandfather, the headman, was named Thomas and he signed the treaty in 1899. His father, my great grandfather was Lazare Sakeskanip, the son of Sakeskanip who, from what I’ve found out, most likely came up to Fort Chip and settled there from the northern United States in the early 1800s.”

As to how her family name became Gibot, Shirley-Sakeskanip said she and her brothers have a few ideas.

“Sakeskanip came from the south. He was Assiniboine, the Stony First Nations…We think maybe they got Gibot from the way Sakeskanip pronounced Assiniboine – like Assini-bot,” she said. “There’s another theory, too: there was a camp cook named Peter Gibot in Fort Chip around the same time, so maybe they used his last name for some reason.”

Sakeskanip and her brother Ernie have both reverted their surnames to the original form and fellow brother Frank is in the process of having his last name also legally changed to Sakeskanip.

“My brother Gerald, he is still a trapper in Fort Chip – the only one of us still there. He speaks Cree and was always out trapping with Dad so he had heard our name before. He said that’s what Dad had always said was our name…Gerald is still a Gibot, but I hope he changes it, too,” she said.

Sakeskanip was raised with six sisters and four brothers on her family’s trapline in the Lake Claire area.

“From the time I was born till I was about six, we traveled from fish camp to winter camp and back to Fort Chip. We were nomadic and then I had to go to residential school, the Holy Angels school,” she said.

Sakeskanip’s book, The Headman’s Granddaughter, details her struggle with the aftermath of residential school, negotiating between her traditional roots and the modern world she’d been thrown into.

“I hope my book helps people to reconnect and heal,” she said. “The book is moving. I have a billboard about it outside Kamloops. People see that, so it’s getting out there.”

Sakeskanip was last in Fort Chip for the Treaty Days celebration in 2010. She said she plans to eventually move home after completing her doctorate and work in the community where she was born.

“I’m proud of where I came from and I honour my name,” she said.“I really want to go back one day and work on social problems with my skills and knowledge. The solution is all about healing and knowing who you are.”

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