Stories from the Land: Indigenous Place Names in Canada

Written by: Ron Kelland, Historic Places Research Designation Officer

Place names, or toponyms, are an important aspect of language. At their most basic, place names serve an important role in wayfinding and navigation. They allow us to locate ourselves within the landscape, or, perhaps more importantly sometimes, they allow others to locate us.

Place names also have another often-overlooked role. They are cultural artifacts, containing within them the stories of previous generations. They reveal historical land uses and show the values of previous generations.  They connect people to both the present physical landscape and to their own culture, history and heritage.

 

Stories from the Land: Indigenous Place Names in Canada Interactive map. Source: Natural Resources Canada.
Stories from the Land: Indigenous Place Names in Canada Interactive map. Source: Natural Resources Canada.

2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages. The United Nations made the designation in 2016 in order to, “draw attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote indigenous languages.” The resolution was adopted by consensus, with no member nation requesting a vote. Member nations have been encouraged to use 2019 to develop and promote initiatives that further awareness of Indigenous languages.

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Map launch event at the Canadian Museum of History, June 21, 2019.

To recognize the 2019 Year of Indigenous Languages, the Geographical Names Board of Canada, a national body comprised of representatives of all provinces and territories and federal departments and agencies, developed Stories from the Land: Indigenous Place Names in Canada, an interactive digital map of Canadian place names of Indigenous origin. The map aims to show how the use of Indigenous place names and languages by colonial authorities for map-making and place-naming activities has evolved over time. The map was launched on June 21, 2019, National Indigenous Peoples Day with an event at the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa.

Stories from the Land was compiled using place names submitted by the provincial and territorial members of the Geographical Names Board of Canada, and supplemented with ones proposed by some of the federal government members, notably Parks Canada Agency and the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. An estimated 30,000 official place names in Canada are of Indigenous origin. Of these 30,000, only a small number appear on the interactive map. Additional names will be added to the interactive map in future years.
Stories from the Land was compiled using place names submitted by the provincial and territorial members of the Geographical Names Board of Canada, and supplemented with ones proposed by some of the federal government members, notably Parks Canada Agency and the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.
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An estimated 30,000 official place names in Canada are of Indigenous origin. Of these 30,000, only a small number appear on the interactive map. Additional names will be added to the interactive map in future years.

 

As of September 1, 2019, the Alberta Geographical Names Database contains 8,912 official place names, of which 1,161 are believed to have some form of Indigenous origin. However, the precise origin of many place names has not been well documented and the Indigenous origin of just over half of these Alberta place names is assumed. The Indigenous origin of 433 of Alberta’s official place names can be more definitively traced:

Cree (Woodlands and Plains) 281
Stoney Nakoda 71
Blackfoot 43
Chipewyan 17
Dene Thá 10
Dunne-Za 8
Tsuut’ina 2

The use of Indigenous names and language in official place names has a complicated history, and the interactive map has been split into sections to reflect this complexity. The first section is, “Names Originating from Indigenous Language.” These are official place names either known or believed to be of Indigenous origin. These are largely place names used by Indigenous people to identify places in their worlds that explorers, traders, surveyors and settlers recorded, adopted or appropriated. Europeans often altered many of these names or they became altered over time. So, while these names may be of Indigenous origin, their spelling, pronunciation and meaning have changed as they were translated into European languages (primarily English and French). In many cases, the stories behind these names may have also been misinterpreted or lost during the cultural transfer process. Some Alberta examples of these names are:

  • Okotoks, which is derived from the Blackfoot name for the nearby glacial erratic (and Provincial Historic Resource).
  • Waskasoo Creek – Which flows through the City of Red Deer and into the Red Deer River. Its name is derived from the Cree word for ‘elk’.
  • Kleskun Hill – the geographical features in this area, and the Natural Area protecting some of that landscape take their name from the Dunne-Za name meaning ‘white mud’.

The second section is about, “Reinstated Indigenous Place Names.” The original, traditional Indigenous name has been made the official name for these places. Those places had either a colonial name attached to them or a mistranslated or misspelled Indigenous name used as the official name. Some Alberta examples are:

  • Maskwacis – This hamlet was formerly known as Hobbema, a name that was adopted by the Canadian Pacific Railway honouring a Dutch landscape painter. In 2014, the four nations with reserves around the hamlet – Ermineskin Cree Nation, Louis Bull Tribe, Montana First Nation and Samson Cree Nation – requested that the community be renamed Maskwacis, meaning “Bear Hills” which is the traditional Cree name for the region.
  • Îyâmnathka – This mountain was officially named Mount Laurie in 1961 in honour of Dr. John Laurie, an educator an advocate of Indigenous rights. However, it has been more properly, and incorrectly known as “Yamnuska” for many decades. In 1984, after consultation with the Stoney Nakoda, the name Îyâmnathka (meaning ‘flat-faced mountain’), with an approved Stoney Nakoda spelling, was adopted for the mountain. Îyâmnathka / Mount Laurie is also significant as it is one of the rare examples of a dual named geographical feature in Alberta, with both names having official recognition.

The third section is “Official Recognition of Indigenous Place Names,” for Indigenous place names that recognized as official place. While reclaimed names like Maskwacis and Îyâmnathka fit into this category, it also features places that formerly had no official name, but are now officially known by an Indigenous place name. One such place is Ehagay Nakoda. This prominent mountain near Canmore had been long known as Mount Lawrence Grassi after a prominent park warden, mountain climber and guide. In 1991, the name of the mountain was officially changed to Ehagay Nakoda, meaning ‘The last Nakoda’. The name is derived from a Stoney Nakoda origin story about the mountain’s creation. While the multi-peaked mountain bears an Indigenous name, many of its peaks have other commemorative names, the easternmost being Ha Ling Peak and the highest one now bearing the name Mount Lawrence Grassi.

The 1984 Decision Sheet adopting the dual official name Mount Laurie (Îyâmnathka). This document is available through the interactive map.
The 1984 Decision Sheet adopting the dual official name Mount Laurie (Îyâmnathka). This document is available through the interactive map.

Stories from the Land: Indigenous Place Names in Canada is part of a series of interactive maps that the Geographical Names Board of Canada and its members are developing. The goal of these maps is to build more awareness amongst Canadians about place names and their important cultural role. The map will be updated over time through the addition of more names and to reflect name changes that will happen following the maps original release date. Stories from the Land is part of the Geographical Names Board of Canada’s effort to disseminate knowledge about Indigenous place names as a step towards reconciliation.

Sources:

Canada. Environment and Natural Resources. Geographical Names Board of Canada. Stories from the Land: Indigenous Place Names in Canada. (Ottawa, ON), 2019. http://maps.canada.ca/journal/content-en.html?lang=en&appid=0e585399e9474ccf932104a239d90652&appidalt=11756f2e3c454acdb214f950cf1e2f7d.

Canada. Environment and Natural Resources. Geographical Names Board of Canada. Principles and Procedures for Geographical Naming. (Ottawa, ON), 2011. https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/sites/www.nrcan.gc.ca/files/earthsciences/pdf/gnames/GNBC_english_accessible.pdf.

United Nations, General Assembly resolution 71/178, Rights of indigenous peoples, A/71/178 (19 December 2016), available from https://undocs.org/en/A/RES/71/178).

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