What’s in a name? Plenty for Alberta First Nations seeking heritage recognition

If a group of First Nations get their wish, Calgary will be renamed Wichispa Oyade — Stoney Nakoda terms that roughly translate to mean elbow town.

The Stoney Nakoda have applied to have a long list of well-known places across southern Alberta changed to reflect traditional names given by their people.

Their application letter to the Alberta government also includes Canmore, the Bow River, Mount Allan and dozens of other sites that they consider to be part of their territory.

“The Stoney Nakoda people are the original occupants of the land and place names should be changed to their traditional Stoney Nakoda names in order to allow the culture and history of these lands to become more known and respected,” reads the letter.

The First Nations argue that the English or Cree names many of these places have fail to reflect their specific Indigenous history.

“This lack of recognition contributes to an increasing threat that Stoney Nakoda heritage will be overrun.”

The Stoney Nations, descendants of the Sioux, include three bands with the largest reserve located west of Calgary.

They have been suing the province and the federal government over their aboriginal and treaty rights, including land and resources, in a complex case that was originally filed in 2003.

The claim covers a big part of southern Alberta and the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

Douglas Rae, a lawyer for the First Nations, said the name change application is not part of the lawsuit, but an attempt by the bands to prove their ties to the land.

“The Stoneys are asserting their rights, and good evidence of these claims is to formally ask for recognition of the Stoney Nakoda names,” Rae said.

Some of the proposed name changes are fairly literal translations.

Elder Wallace Ear said the word for Bow River is Ijathibe Wapta, a place where people made bows out of saskatoon saplings.

They are also suggesting Mini Thni Wapta as an alternative, which means cold river, a description that won’t surprise anyone who has ever tipped a canoe in the Bow.

The proposal for Canmore — Chuwapchipchiyan Kude Bi — has no direct connection to its existing moniker. The town was named Canmore in the 1880s by a railway official after an ancient king of Scotland.

Elder Frank Powderface said the Stoney name reflects a hunter who fooled himself by shooting at what he thought was a wolf in the willows, but there was no animal, only willows.

Alberta’s Geographical Names Program has never before dealt with such an extensive list of requested changes.

Ron Kelland, program co-ordinator, said the application will be evaluated in a process that will include public consultations. Researchers will look at old maps and historical documents.

“We are in the early stages of looking at it and we are very much looking forward to engaging the Stoney Nakoda on these names,” he said.

Final decisions on naming natural geographical features are made by the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation and the government.

Changing community names is up to the province, but requests that involve First Nations must be presented to Ottawa.

Kelland said it’s possible for a natural location to have both an official and a traditional name.

In 1984, the province changed the name of Mount Laurie west of Calgary to also include its Stoney Nakoda traditional name Iyamnathka, which means flat-surfaced rock or mountain.

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