Mi'kmaq atlas reveals secrets behind Nova Scotia place names

The new Mi'kmaq Place Names Digital Atlas and Website project is letting people see the true origins of Nova Scotia place names.

Many Nova Scotia names have Mi'kmaq origins, some more bizarre than others

These are just a few of the Mi'kmaq place names in Nova Scotia. (Mi’kmaw Place Names Digital Atlas and Website Project)

The new Mi'kmaq Place Names Digital Atlas and Website project is letting people see the true origins of Nova Scotia place names. 

The project is meant to raise public awareness and document the Mi'kmaq's 13,000-year history in Nova Scotia. 

Although the project may sound a little stuffy, it has revealed some pretty funny facts about places around the province. 

"It's the expulsion of gas, human gas and that's where we get the word Picto," said Bernie Francis the linguist on the project. 

That's right — Pictou is the Mi'kmaq word for fart. There's a logic to the name as well. Francis said the bad smelling sulfur in some parts of Pictou County most likely led to the area getting its distinct name.  

The community named Hectanooga in Digby County also has a bizarre origin word. Francis said Hectanooga is very similar to a Mi'kmaq word meaning "Your dog's on fire." 

He believes it was mispronounced by non-aboriginal speakers to become Hectanooga. 

Some place names are far more common across the Maritimes though, for instance there are different communities called Tracadie in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and P.E.I. Francis said Tracadie comes from a Mi'kmaq word meaning encampment.

"So the Mi'kmaq people being who they were, they would travel all over the place and pretty well camp anywhere."

There is also debate over the meaning of the Mi'kmaq meaning of Kejimkujik, as in Kejimkujik National Park in Nova Scotia. 

The park took its name from Kejimkujik Lake. The park's official stance is that it comes from the Mi'kmaq word believed to mean tired muscles — a reference to the effort it took to canoe across the lake.

However, other references say that meaning is not quite right, including an excerpt from Ruth Whitehead's book Tracking Doctor Lonecloud: Showman to Legend Keeper:

"Lonecloud told Clara Dennis that Kejimkujik meant "a long way to paddle." He told Harry Piers, however, that it was a phrase in "men's language," not to be used around women and children, meaning "chapped and swollen testicles." This verb phrase, according to Bernie Francis [a Mi'kmaq translator], literally means, "they are painfully felt."

Seeking elder knowledge

The place names atlas has taken five years to complete and has collected 1,500 place names that have Mi'kmaq origins.  

"There's probably double that amount of names here, it's just that we have a limited amount of time and a limited amount of money. Under those conditions we did the best that we could," said Francis.

Much of the research into the place names was done by students who would speak with elders to help find some of the more obscure Mi'kmaq place names.  

"The elders would look at the particular part in Nova Scotia in which they live and they were able to give us many, many place names of that area." 

The Mi'kmaq Place Names Digital Atlas and Website was launched on Oct. 1, Treaty Day. 

A celebration to mark the completion of the atlas, as well as recognize all of the different groups involved in making it a reality, goes ahead Monday at the Millbrook Cultural and Heritage Centre at 1 p.m.

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