I am a Woman, I am Alaska Native, I’m Getting Married: Why I’m Not Changing my Last Name

Wonderful news! I will be getting married soon! I am excited to be marrying my best friend and I am especially excited for my daughter to have a dad who is around full time and is a positive influence on her life.

The wedding will follow many of the traditions of modern Western culture. There will be a bridal party. I will wear a fashionable, white dress. My husband-to-be will be waiting at the end of the aisle that I walk down, led by my father.

However, there is one aspect of traditional Western marriage practice that I am not adhering to: changing my last name.

Of course, I am expected to change it to my soon-to-be husband’s last name. This is what all the women in my family have done. It is a practice that has been a part of Western culture for centuries. And it is a practice that, up until a few years, I had fully expected myself to follow.

My ethnic heritage is Iñupiaq and German, but I grew up in an Iñupiaq village surrounded by that part of my heritage. In spite of the fact that my Iñupiaq ancestors only acquired last names within the last century or so, this idea of the wife changing her last name to match her husband’s has taken a strong grip on my community. Why? We are led to believe that it is right to do so. It shows unity in the family. It shows faithfulness, love and submission to the husband who is to be the head of the household, and to whom the wife must be a helper. Or, at least that is what I was led to believe during my upbringing, even upon my entry into adulthood. Additionally, the effects of the assimilation movement of the 19th and 20th centuries are still very strong today.

The Iñupiaq people acquired the Western cultural practice of using last names around 1900, depending on the region and time of contact. During this time, people only had their given name, a nickname, and possibly a community title. The Quaker missionaries had established themselves in Kotzebue and some of the surrounding villages. It was decided that these people needed last names. So they were given names. And sometimes, last names were given without regard to kinship relations. For instance, two adult brothers might be given different last names. Along with the new practice of surnames came the practice of the women taking on her husband’s last name after a legal and religious marriage ceremony.

It wasn’t until I reached my mid to late 20s that my mindset began to change. I had been a single parent for about a year or two, and I was beginning to feel rather independent. I was the head of my own household, and doing a fair job at it. I wasn’t relying on a male partner to take care of intimidating tasks like raising a daughter solo, making all major household decisions, or killing spiders. I realized that I did the work of two by myself.

Another thing that I had begun to do was write. I wrote, and I created works that I could call my own. Works that I put my name on. No, I have not published these (yet). But I brought them to an audience of my peers through workshop classes, I shared them with friends, and I received a Master’s degree through these writings. All under this name.

There are many more reasons why I am choosing to keep my last name. More reasons to keep it than to change it. Here they are in no particular order.

  1. It is the name I have been identifying with for thirty years. Why change it now?
  2. My feminist mind constantly brings up the unfair fact that no one even blinks an eye at men keeping their names.
  3. The paperwork is a pain in the butt.
  4. My last name is awesome.
  5. Every.Single.Goddamn.Thing.With.My.Name.On.It.Would.Need.To.Be.Changed.
  6. I have a right to identify the way that I choose.
  7. I, as a human, choose to keep my last name.
  8. I, as a mother, choose to keep my last name.
  9. I, as an indigenous woman, choose to keep my last name.

I love my fiance. I love that we are unified in our relationship and that we are parents to my daughter. I love his last name (it is also very awesome). However, I do not believe that I need to give up my name, the name that has been with me for nearly thirty years, to prove that we are unified.

Some might argue that it also doesn’t make sense to keep a name that I didn’t even choose for myself. Yes. My parents chose my name for me. I didn’t have a choice then, but I have a choice now. And I choose the route that many men take without giving it a second thought: I will remain the name that I have had for the past thirty years.