North

Goodbye Great Slave Lake? Movement to decolonize N.W.T. maps is growing

Many Indigenous people in the Northwest Territories are advocating the use of traditional names for people, places, lakes and rivers, in place of terms imposed during colonization.

'Our language has its own story ... we need to honour that as well'

Sunset on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake near Lutsel K'e, formerly known as Snowdrift. Many Indigenous peoples in the Northwest Territories are advocating the use of traditional names for people, places, lakes and rivers, in place of terms imposed during colonization. (Pat Kane)

Behind every name there is a history that moulds a collective consciousness, a narrative that transcends time and ties people to the land and for many, to their ancestors.

For Deneze Nakehk'o, his identity is in every way linked to his Dene ancestry. That's why the term Slavey does not sit well with him.

"It goes back to about the late 1800s," he said. "There's French fur traders, and their guides at that time were Cree.

"Back then there used to be a lot of battles between the Cree and Dene. When the fur traders came by they asked their guides who these people were, and they said basically 'those are the people that we battle and we make slaves out of them.'"

Nakehk'o said the name Slavey is a colonial term that was imposed on the Dehcho Dene. 

"It is a very terrible and horrible name. Even though I'm born here and from here, I'm not proud of that name at all."

The Dehcho Dene are commonly referred to as South Slavey as they live south and west of Great Slave Lake, another name that Nakehk'o does not appreciate.

"It's a beautiful place. It's majestic; it's huge. And I don't really think the current name on the map is fitting for that place."

He prefers 'Tu Nedhe,' which means 'Big Lake' in Dene Soline, the language of his mother's side of the family.

'Never insult us by calling us Chipewyans'

Nancy Scanie takes exception to a term she refers to as insulting: Chipewyan. Chipewyan is Cree for 'pointed skins.'

"The Dene people used to have pointed little hoods on their jackets and the Cree started making fun of the Dene people and started calling us 'pointed head,'" she said.

Nancy Scanie is Denesuline from Cold Lake, Alta. 'Never insult us by calling us Chipewyans because we are not that,' she says. (CBC)

The term Chipewyan has been used to describe the Indigenous people living primarily in the regions of northern Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and parts of the Northwest Territories.

Scanie said she is Denesuline from Cold Lake, Alta. The Denesuline live in the northern regions of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, whereas the Dene Soline and Dene de dline live in the N.W.T.

Scanie said she first heard the term Chipewyan in residential school but did not know what it meant. She said it's still prevalent today because many Denesuline still use the word Chipewyan to identify themselves.

"We are not Chipewyan. We are Dene. We all identify ourselves in our own category. But never insult us by calling us Chipewyans because we are not that."

Mileage posts

For the last 30 years, Doris Camsell has been teaching the language of the Dehcho Dene in Hay River schools. She wants traditional Dene names to replace the colonial English place names to eliminate cultural confusion.

"A name is so important," she said.

Doris Camsell teaches the language of the Dehcho Dene in Hay River schools. She says elders questioned why places were given English names, asking why Sir Alexander Mackenzie was so big and powerful to have such a large river named after him. (CBC)

"The place names are specific places that give you information about whether something happened there or if something is buried there. It's also a landmark to tell you how far you have left to go. They're just like mileage posts to the Dene people."

Camsell recalls elders were upset with many English names.

"It's not right for somebody to come along and suddenly say 'This is Great Slave Lake' and 'This is the Mackenzie River.' They don't even know who Mackenzie is or why he names the river after himself.

"I remember an elder saying 'How powerful is that man? Is he a big man? Is he a big giant or does he have Indian medicine, that's why he's that powerful to change such a big river?' Questions like that. I know it bothered a lot of people."

Camsell said the Mackenzie River is called 'Dehcho,' which means 'big river' in her language and Great Slave Lake is called 'Tucho,' which means 'big water.' 

"Great Slave Lake doesn't mean nothing to none of the ancestors. That's an English word. It's their story. Our language has its own story as well so we need to honour that as well."

Many Northwest Territories communities have changed their names to better reflect their Indigenous communities, the most recent was in 2006, when the Arctic coastal community of Holman became Ulukhaktok — Inuktitut for 'where there is material for ulus.'

On Tuesday, the Dehcho community of Trout Lake will become the latest to do so as their community's name formally changes to Sambaa K'e, which means 'place of trout' in South Slavey.

Reclaiming place names

Rosa Mantla, a language co-ordinator with the Tlicho Government, agrees with Camsell. Communities in the region officially changed to their Tlicho names more than 10 years ago.

"People have had landmarks and lakes that they named, so there were names before contact and so we need to claim it," said Mantla.

She remembers travelling from Behchoko to Gameti with her family as a young girl and her father explaining why various lakes along the way had specific names in Tlicho. 

Rosa Mantla remembers travelling from Behchoko to Gameti with her family as a young girl and her father explaining why various lakes along the way had specific names in Tlicho. (CBC)

Mantla said they are currently collecting stories from elders and through the process, documenting all the Tlicho place names throughout the region. The information will be used to teach their high school students.

"Our people, our elders, have used those names. An elder won't say Fort Rae, he would always say Behchoko. And then in the outlying communities — Wekweeti, Gameti, Whati, all those lakes that you go on the winter road, even in the summertime — they are names in Tlicho," said Mantla.

North of the Tlicho lies the Sahtu region where Cara Manuel is from. The 24-year-old mother is K'asho Got'ine, which means 'big willow people.' She is studying Linguistics and Native Studies at the University of Alberta.

Manuel lives in Fort Good Hope but she would rather call the community by its traditional name, Radilih Koe — 'place of the rapids.'

She said she was inspired after taking a college course that taught her about the history of colonialism and how settlers began naming Indigenous communities and places.

Cara Manuel lives in Fort Good Hope but she would rather call the community by its traditional name, Radilih Koe — 'place of the rapids.' (submitted)

"If you drive on the highway, you see all these English names or you see the schools named after these European settlers like Sir John [Franklin] and Sir Alexander Mackenzie. It doesn't really honour our identity as the Dene."

She plans to speak to community leaders and residents this summer about a name change.

"This is like a huge thing and we should be proud that we want to honour our language and honour our history as Dene people," she said.

Nakehk'o said he has noticed growing interest from people who want to know and understand Indigenous Peoples better. But he said it will take time to implement more Indigenous history and knowledge into the school system.

And change the maps.

"Once people become aware, after awareness comes appreciation, and appreciation leads to understanding. I think things are changing for the better."

About the Author

Curtis Mandeville is a reporter for CBC North based in Yellowknife. He is from Fort Resolution, N.W.T.