Indigenous Place Names as Visualizations of Indigenous Knowledge

Rebekah R. Ingram

Introduction: Why Are Place Names Important?

A place name is a symbol which conveys spatial information through language. Put more simply, place names are a way of using language to transmit landscape, geographical, and environmental information through space and time. Through the medium of language, they represent people’s relationships with a location or landscape. Why and how we name place, as well as which places are named or nameless allows insight into many of the different aspects of life. The giving of a place name may occur as a result of an event in the area worthy of recognition, such as Council Bluffs, Iowa, which was named for a council meeting between the Lewis and Clark expedition and the Otoe and Missouri Indigenous bands (National Park Service, 2004). Anglo-Saxon (sometimes called “Old English”) place names, such as Birmingham, Arlesey, and Bakewell all utilize personal names to indicate possession or control.1 Finally, the importance of religion and the influence of the Catholic Church2 is demonstrated by the common use of “saint” names, which number over 2,200 in Quebec.2 The referents of naming and the act of naming itself cover a wide variety of topics including navigation, historical settlement and ecological knowledge. Examining the salience, frequency of use, and semantic (meaningful) concepts used within place names allows those studying them to infer what is important to the group of people doing the naming and what kinds of information they are aware of.

Names descriptive of some specific feature of the landscape, whether regarding a physical feature, such as the White Mountains (New Hampshire), a source of food, such as Cranberry Isles (Maine), or important sources of materials, such as Ash Creek (Arizona, Oregon, California, South Dakota, etc.) often demonstrate people’s knowledge of and relationship to a specific location. Many Indigenous place names demonstrate Indigenous Knowledge (IK) or Traditional Environmental Knowledge (ТЕК), “[t]he understandings, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings”4, which is acquired during travel and trade, through acts of cultural significance, and in the process of gathering sustenance and materials. The Assembly of First Nations elaborates that this is “knowledge informed by aboriginal paradigms as applied to skills, understandings, expertise, facts, familiarities, beliefs, revelations and observations ... it is location specific and reflects the particular conditions of unique cultures and peoples in specific geographic locations.”5 In short, Indigenous Knowledge requires an intimate knowledge of the landscape which is passed intergenerationally.

Table 14.1 Place names of the Kwakwaka’wak demonstrate Indigenous Knowledge7

Place Name



having sockeye salmon


having spring salmon


having herring spawn


having poisonous clams

se 'Idzade'

having blueberries


having salmon berry shoots


having yellow cedar


halibut fishing beach place


mountain goat place

Boas’ (1934) study “Place names of the Kwakiutl”6 provides many excellent examples of IK as embedded within place names. Some of these are given in Table 14.1, which can be found below.

These examples outline knowledge of different plants and animals important to (or, in the case of poisonous clams, dangerous to) the Kwakwala’wakw as food and material resources. In addition, they also demonstrate long-term, seasonal knowledge as evidenced through the specifications of “spring” salmon, the sights of fish spawning, and the appearance of blueberries and berry shoots, events which occur only at particular times of year.

Many Indigenous place names are in current use in North America. Familiar examples of these include names like Quebec, from the Algonquin language, meaning “narrows”8 and Skanehtati (Schenectady, NY), which describes the extensive area of pine bush between Albany, New York, and the location of the present-day city of Schenectady. These names originated within their own naming stratum, where the naming stratum is the set of names within a particular language as used by that sociolinguistic group. For example, a number of Indigenous peoples including the Natchez and the Caddo peoples named places in what is today called Louisiana9 according to their own sociolinguistic naming conventions, or their cognitive and semantic rules for what features were important enough to name and how they should be named. After European arrival in North America, the French subsequently named, or renamed places within the same area according to their naming conventions, thus creating a French naming stratum. Language patterns from each wave of new arrivals to the landscape were layered over each other as each group of people renamed and documented those names, or utilized the old name, often changing the name to conform to the language of the new namers, or simply to make the name easier to say. Each of these layers comprises its own naming stratum and, depending upon the movement and location of the namers, these strata may take up vast stretches of land (for example, the American English naming stratum which arguably consists of all of the names located within the administrative boundaries of the United States) or a relatively smaller geographic area (for example, the Pennsylvania Dutch naming convention of Lancaster County, PA). Strata may therefore be further defined as what I call macrostrata (a large area of layers that have been named by what may be considered a dominant language family), or microstrata (layers of smaller areas, or layers that have been named by what may be considered minority languages). Since macrostrata are comprised of such a large geographic area, microstrata may be contained within them, and they may also overlap with each other. While the macrostrata may be responsible for the renaming of places, those that are not renamed become part of a substratum. Thus, Indigenous place names that are in use today originated from one stratum and remained in use despite the fact that, in many cases, the naming language became less frequently used, in some cases even becoming endangered or even dormant.

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