Awakening The Spirit of The Land: A ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐤ nêhiyaw Perspective on Traditional Land Names

I went for a drive with an old man. We left mid-morning on a warm and smoky day. We watched for birds and medicine-picking sites along the way.

We stopped to look through the muskeg and the willows. He told me stories of the old days when the roads were gravel paths through the bush.

We turned down a dusty road that had mostly industrial development on either side.

“Keep going north,” he said, “I’ll remember where we are going once I see the lake.”


The old man was taking me to a traditional ceremonial site where his lifelong journey of helping others had begun. The map to this site only existed in his mind, in his memories, when he was taught as a young man how to landmark himself in the bush. I drove slowly and patiently knowing he needed time to observe the land around us.

“Pull over here,” he calmly said. We parked the vehicle on the side of the gravel road, and I followed behind him as we made our way into the bush. As we approached the lake that he described to me, we saw the beaver house sitting strongly on the water. He talked to me about the watershed and how the new medicines that had pushed up from this life force were blooming in the spring runoff. All was quiet save for the few birds and insects juxtaposed with the booms of canons that went off at nearby tailings ponds.

Sacred sites like this exist all throughout the region of Wood Buffalo. Sadly, they are disappearing due to development by industry and government. Sacred sites of old villages, lodges, and ceremonies; sites of medicines, berries, and herbs; sites of hunting grounds; sites of historical events in oral history. The knowledge has been overturned with the earth before anyone had the time—and more notably, a valued voice—to share with the people who come after them.

What remains, we are morally, ethically, and ancestrally responsible to hold on to.

Original Land Names

Before the arrival of European explorers like the historical Alexander McKenzie and the notorious Peter Pond, the land within the townsite of present-day Fort McMurray was called Ełídlį Kuę́ by the Dene people. The Cree people call it  nistawâyâw noting where the three rivers meet—the mighty Athabasca River, the Snye River, and the Clearwater River. Both Cree and Dene names are references to the waters that mark this place. Each of these rivers, too, has its own names, and along their banks—every twist and turn—holds original names that let travellers know where to camp, where to hunt, where to harvest and more.

The names of the lands and waterways that nourish the region we call home are timeless in nature. Our natural laws as sakawiyinowak—as Bush People—teach us that everything is in its place for a reason because it has been put there by our Creator. Every blade of grass, root of a tree, mineral of stone, animal being, and human being is connected to each other by spirit. Our responsibility is to respect this law by our own free will which requires kindness and humility, and so our values are built around this common understanding. At the beginning of time, when our Dene and Cree ancestors named the sites on which they survived, they did not name them for any one person in time. They kindly and humbly thought of all the people who would come after them that would need the land knowledge they had observed.

Land and water are named for their characteristics that are timeless should natural laws remain upheld.

Here is where the sweetgrass grows when our descendants need to pray: muskwati.

Here is where the rapids are when our descendants travel the river in spring: pawistikowin.

Here is where the blueberries grow when our descendants need to prepare for winter: iyinimina.

Here is where the loons sing when our descendants need to find water: mâkwasâkahikan.

It does not matter at which point a human being existed in time and space because the names were timelessly marked to be shared with all the generations after in an oral tradition. That is a cherished gift by the first grandmothers and grandfathers of this land.

Awakening Original Land Names

Our land names are sleeping. The original names hold important knowledge about who we are as Cree and Dene people as they embody our culture, languages and histories that hold the key to understanding of ourselves as First Peoples of this land. Particularly, and urgently, they hold knowledge that needs to be shared with those that are reclaiming traditional ways of being and knowing.

Collaboration between nations’ leadership, all levels of government and industries that work in ground disturbance needs to take place to support Elders and Knowledge Keepers in sharing this knowledge. Through generations of historical interruption when traditional languages and practices were banned and original names were replaced with European ones, many names were lost but many have survived because of the strength of our old people. We must have urgent and meaningful discussions on policy surrounding reclamation and preservation and acknowledge that not all this work cannot be done in the office or boardroom. It requires us to open the parts of ourselves that have become accustomed to disconnecting from the natural world.

There are many paths to awakening the original land names. Government resources such as Natural Resources Canada are available to support best practices on Indigenous geographical naming. Community projects such as Voices of the Land are available to record storytelling and to digitize knowledge. Most importantly, this work requires visiting the land and waters with the old people who share their oral knowledge and maintaining aural responsibility to deeply listen to understand, as they gift us with the names our ancestors left for us to take care of. We are in the presence of the last generation that lived on the land. Everything from that point forward is second-hand knowledge.

The old man and I pack up his things. The willow fungus slowly smoulders as we let it safely go out. There is comfort in our silence, and I feel grateful for this moment.

“This is where it all began,” he says sentimentally, “but this will be the last time I visit this place.”

We make our way back to the vehicle. He grabs a handful of Labrador tea from the ground and stuffs it in his mouth with a grin. We both laugh. I landmark myself, as he has taught me to do, and I silently commit myself to preserve this site as we make our way down the dusty road again.

On the way home, my eyes are misty. I am grateful and saddened at once. I wish everyone could experience the moment I had with him. His kind and gentle way, his Cree songs, and his immense land knowledge. I think of the collective healing we still must do as a people due to the ongoing impacts of colonization, and how the land waits for us to return to her, to know her names, for the gifts she holds for us.


Map: Traditional Land Names (Cree) from Nistawâyâw: Traditional Land-Use Study of Fort McMurray No. 468 First Nation.

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