Indigenous name changes for Alberta places is about preserving culture, language, says First Nations manager

A proposal to change names of Alberta places is about improving understanding of Indigenous culture and language without necessarily removing existing names, a Stoney Tribal Administration manager says.

'I'm not suggesting that we take away all the existing names,' Bill Snow says

Calgary has made a list of Alberta places to be called by the traditional Stoney name, in a proposal by three First Nations west of the city. (Getty Images)

A proposal to change names of Alberta places would improve understanding of Indigenous culture and language without necessarily removing existing names, a Stoney Tribal Administration manager says.

The administration for three First Nation bands west of Calgary has applied to name a long list of well-known Alberta towns, cities and landmarks with traditional Indigenous names.

"We would certainly like to see more about Stoney Nakoda understanding about landscapes in general," Bill Snow told the Calgary Eyeopener on Wednesday morning. "This is really about the preservation of our language and culture."

Calgary made the list.

In the Nakoda language of the Stoney people, the Calgary area is called Wichispa Oyade, which roughly translates to elbow town and a gathering of people or cultures.

The city was named officially after Calgary Bay on Mull, an island off the west coast of Scotland. It means "Bay Farm" or "clear running water" in Gaelic.

"I'm not suggesting that we take away all the existing names," Snow said. "I think what we're suggesting is that we add to what we already know about places, about landscapes."

A photo of Elbow River from River Park. The Stoney name for Calgary is Wichispa Oyade, which roughly translates as elbow town. (Google)

This may take the form of replacing names entirely or adding a second official name for certain places, as has been done in some parts of British Columbia.

Many places in southern Alberta do have Indigenous names, but primarily from the Blackfoot and Cree languages, such as Okotoks, which translates to "rock" in Blackfoot.

Nihahi Creek, which means "ravine," is one of the rare places named a Stoney Nakoda word.

More than three dozen Indigenous languages are spoken in Alberta, although some by as few as 10 people, according to Statistics Canada.

Rare name changes

Applications to change the names of places in the province are not typically approved, a co-ordinator with Alberta's Geographic Names Program told the Calgary Eyeopener. One of the reasons is because consistency is important to mapping and navigating an area.

But "that's not to say name changes can't happen," Kelland said.

For example, Ha Ling Peak near Canmore, Alta., was once named Chinaman's Peak, which is derogatory. The local Chinese community pushed for a more accurate namesake for the railway worker who climbed the mountain and returned to the Bow Valley in under six hours.

The Town of Canmore is seen below, from the top of Ha Ling Peak. The mountain is named for a Chinese railway worker. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

This long, thorough list is very unusual, and the department plans to write to the Stoney Tribal Administration soon, to arrange a meeting and find elders with traditional knowledge of the land, Kelland said.

"To be honest, that is something that we have not really dealt with in the past," he said.

"So it is very much new territory for us and we're going to have to work very closely with the Stoney, with the Blackfoot and likely with the Tsuut'ina, as well, to navigate issues of this sort and hopefully come up with some solutions."

The naming department may look at prioritizing a few names to study first, he said.

Preserving language and culture of Indigenous peoples through naming has been brought up by both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But Snow said he hasn't seen concrete change locally.

"You don't have a group taking up all the calls to action and giving us six month or yearly reports on their progress," Snow said.

"There's really been drop-off of that kind of activity, so I think this is a way to preserve some of those things under the bigger studies that have been happening."




This year also marks the 150th anniversary of Canada's confederation, and also 140 years since the signing of Treaty 7 by Great Britain and multiple First Nation governments in what is now southern Alberta.

Along with adding traditional Stoney names to this province, the administration is advocating to formally teach Treaty 7, Indigenous culture and First Nations history in Alberta elementary and post-secondary schools, Snow said.

"When we look at all the events that have happened leading up till today, how important it is, those relationships between the Crown and First Nations, I think we're advocating for more understanding and more education in all of those areas," he said.

The Stoney Nations also have a lawsuit, dating back to 2003, underway against Alberta and the federal government over treaty rights that covers much of southern Alberta and the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains.

  • Hear more about the proposal to change or add names to Alberta places:


With files from Falice Chin, Rachel Ward and the Calgary Eyeopener.


  • An earlier version of this article stated that Okotoks means "meeting creek" in Blackfoot, when in fact it translates to "rock."
    Mar 25, 2021 10:52 AM MT