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Aborginal place-names across Canada
Feb 13, 2014
More than 1,300 Manitoba locations carry aboriginal names. Scores of others are English or French versions of native names. This pattern exists throughout Canada with thousands of native names found from east to west.
Canada is an example. It comes from the Iroquois word for “village,” which is Kanata. Ontario, also from Iroquois, is Onitariio in that language, meaning “beautiful lake.”
Quebec, originally Kebec, means “narrow passage; strait” in Algonquian.
Manitoba’s lineage isn’t as clear. It’s derived either from the Assiniboine, moni tobow (lake of the prairie) or from the Cree, manitowapow (strait of the spirit).
Saskatchewan is a lift from the Cree for “swift-flowing river” (kisiskatchewani sipi).
Yukon is Gwich’en for “great  river” while Nunavut means “our land” in Inuktitut.
Assiniboine is the name of an Indian clan. A town in Saskatchewan and a district in Manitoba, both known as Assiniboia, have names originating in Assiniboine. As well, a major river is named for these Indians. The Assiniboines are a branch of the Sioux. In fact, Assiniboine springs from assine (stone) and bwan (the Sioux) and means, “Stony Sioux.”
Asessipi, as in the provincial park, means “shell river” or “shell water.” It’s Chipewyan.
In addition to the many aboriginal names, Canada boasts hundreds of places whose names have been translated from indigenous languages. Some Manitoba examples: Big Bones Spring and Hairy Man Point, both from Ojibwa.
The story behind Hairy Man Point is that a huge hairy man was spotted there. Maybe Bigfoot was in the vicinity at the time.
Medicine Hat, according to Sioux legend, was the site of a battle between Blackfeet and the Sioux/Cree. During the fighting, the Sioux medicine man lost his hat. Now, this was a catastrophe since Sioux tradition declares that should a medicine man lose his headgear, all his potions and magic are also lost. A futile search for the missing hat ensued, but it couldn’t be found. Then, just as the sun was slowly sinking, the searchers saw a giant disappearing into the waters of nearby Bitter Lake. Upon the palm of his hand lay the missing hat.
In northern Manitoba, Fairy Lake, Fairy Rock Lake, and Fairy Woman Lake all evoke the Cree belief in the Maymaykwaysew. These are “small people,” like fairies or leprechauns, who are sometimes described as “wild women.” The Cree say these Maymaykwaysew live inside rocks. In fact, Fairy Rock Lake takes its name from a big rock, The Fairy Rock, on the lake’s southern shore.
These same fairy creatures are referred to again in the untranslated, Maymaykachewapiak Point, on Granville Lake’s south shore. Granville Lake is near Leaf Rapids.
Turtle Mountain’s name-origin is disputed. In the 1930s, it was suggested that the name arose from the turtle dove. But the Cree name, mikinakwuche, means “turtle” or “tortoise.” As well, marshes and lakes there are home to many turtles. Readers will know of nearby Boissevain’s annual Turtle Derby featuring local turtles. It follows that Turtle Mountain is named that because there are turtles there.
Like place namers everywhere, Canada’s indigenous people commemorated important happenings and legends, as well as the surroundings.