By Jon Thompson
The day after Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. became boxing’s heavyweight champion of the world in 1964, he announced that for religious and political reasons, he was to be known as Cassius X, which became Muhammad Ali.
“I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” he said to reporters. “I’m free to be who I want to be.”
His detractors rejected the change. Challenger, Ernie Terrell insisted on calling Ali by his birth name and the Champ taunted him in the ring, shouting “what’s my name” as he gave Terrell the 15-round beating of his life.
But that’s not how Ali beat Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter, Red Smith. Smith attacked him for refusing the Vietnam War draft, writing “…Cassius makes himself as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war.” In their final round, however, Smith called the boxer’s retirement “the biggest event of 1981,” crediting a career that turned $1,000 fights into $10-million events and described him as a “folk hero.”
More importantly, the name Smith wrote into the story was Muhammad Ali.
Ali’s society accepted his name because it respected the benefit to society that he became but cultural undertones held that society back from respecting his name simply because his name was his who he was.
Another time in another ring, the First Nations of Matawa intend to give their own name to the colossal chromite deposit on which Ontario has hung the North’s future, which is now known as the Ring of Fire.
That name will doubtlessly be drawn from their language’s tradition and will equally doubtlessly be dismissed by many as being too difficult to pronounce.
Some will continue calling it “Ring of Fire,” a term credited to Noront Resources’ founding president Richard Nemis, after the legendary country song by Johnny Cash.
You’ve got to be kidding me. The Cowboys and Indians narrative in this country just won’t leave bad enough alone.
The Wild West of North America (or Turtle Island, if you will) has a habit of naming places after the people who “discover” them but the people who live there can come to define themselves differently.
After 60 years of discussing merging the towns of Port Arthur and Fort William, they dropped their monarchical and corporate titles in a 1969 plebiscite. Some elders still grumble that “Lakehead” and “The Lakehead” lost due to vote-splitting but I’d pit the pride of Thunder Bay’s young people against that of any city because it’s a name that means “that place” to them. The First Nation outside of what was Fort William still holds the former city’s name.
To our west, the Hudson’s Bay Company outpost called Rat Portage underwent a bump on the development road when the Maple Leaf Milling Company was unwilling to use the word “rat” on its flour bags. That town became Kenora in 1905. The First Nation on its outskirts, however, continued to be called Rat Portage for another 75 years before it renamed itself Wauzhushk Onigum. Some still complain it’s hard to pronounce but for a younger and more conscious generation, it bounces off the tongue.
Just as the term “Ring of Fire” breathes economic prosperity, it doesn’t exactly inspire a prosperous vision for the land it will leave behind and to the Anishinaabe, the land and the culture are inseparable.
Given the choice, some would choose to remain “Fort William” but we can’t have a double standard for people who don’t want to live in “Rat Portage.”
These mines might be as transformative for Ontario as turning $1,000 fights into $10-million events but to the people who live there, it will be “that place” forever.
When we’re choosing which name we’ll respect, it’s important to remember that no one speaks of Cassius Clay when they’re talking about Muhammad Ali.