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How the erasure of their place names can have 'real-life effects' on Indigenous people

Christina Gray spent a lot of time in national parks, reading plaques and paying attention to the names of nearby mountains, lakes and rivers. She quickly realized how most places were named after Europeans — or, in some cases, their pets.

Replacing Indigenous names can erode connections to land, ancestors, new report says

Christina Gray is a Ts'msyen and Dene lawyer who co-wrote "Reclaiming Indigenous Place Names" for the Yellowhead Institute. (Submitted by Christina Gray)

Be advised this story contains language some readers may find offensive


Christina Gray spent a lot of time in national parks, reading plaques and paying attention to the names of nearby mountains, lakes and rivers.

She quickly realized how most places were named after Europeans — or, in some cases, their pets.

Gray, a Ts'msyen and Dene lawyer, decided to make it a mission to reclaim Indigenous place names. 

What she found in her report with Daniel Rück for the Yellowhead Institute wasn't all that surprising to her. "[It is] mostly white people or settlers who are changing the names to suit their whims or desires or values," Gray said.

Many of the stories about how places were named are similar — they started out with an Indigenous name but it was replaced with an English one. 

The report mentions a German-Canadian land surveyor named Otto Klotz, who named lakes in southern Manitoba after his children, employees and even his pets.

Gray said some examples are much more egregious than others. A peak near Canmore, Alta. nicknamed "Squaw's Tit" was one that stuck out for her.

The word "squaw" is a derogatory term used against Indigenous women. 

This is Anûkathâ Îpa, or Bald Eagle Peak, which was formerly nicknamed a racist and misogynistic word to describe Indigenous women. (The Canadian Press/Jeff McIntosh)

"It almost makes me want to cry, actually," Gray said. "But [a few] people had such a personal connection to the place name … and didn't want it to be renamed.

"Think about [how] there's so many missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada and how you referred to something that's so awful ... those have effects, real-life effects on people. It's not just about a place name."

Those effects can be dire. Gray found in her research that eliminating Indigenous names can erase connections to land on top of perpetuating harmful stereotypes. With the erasure of an Indigenous name comes further erasure of the Indigenous people who used to live there.

It's why renaming efforts to return to Indigenous names are more than just a symbolic gesture, Gray said. For her, it's spiritual — one that bridges connections between Indigenous people, their ancestors, and land. 

"I feel within the core of my being that if we change names to reflect Indigenous histories, including oral histories, then that really affects me personally because it more so reflects my people," Gray said.

She's hopeful her report can help people think about place names in a different way, and with a more critical eye. 

"I think there is a lot of room for growth in the revitalization of Indigenous place names," she said. "Just having that critical awareness could bring about different conversations."

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