Meanings behind local place names

Place names are a very important part of our lives. They provide identification. They help give direction. They are often descriptive and/or symbolic.

They can honour individuals and families, or mark some memorable event. They can be a recollection of fondly remembered place in an old homeland.

Whatever the meaning of place names and the reason for their choice, people are generally very resistant to having a place name changed. While Peter Lougheed was a very popular premier of Alberta, there was still a widespread protest when the name of Kananaskis Provincial Park was changed to Peter Lougheed Provincial Park.

As a compromise, the name Kananaskis Country was adopted as the name for the area in which Peter Lougheed Provincial Park is located.

There is often a particularly strong attachment to the names used by the First Peoples that have survived to the modern day. They are ancient and time-honored. They also often have an element of mystery to them.

There were actually many different groups who lived in Central Alberta over the millennia. The identity of many has been lost in the mists of time. Some have been identified through archaeological records or the writings of early explorers, fur traders and missionaries. However, these identifications generally go back only 200 or 300 years.

The First Nations of Central Alberta spoke a variety of languages. The Shoshoni or Snake First Nation, one of the earliest identified tribes in this area, spoke a Uto-Aztecan language. One of the largest groups was the Cree. They spoke an Algonkian language.

The predominant First Nations in Central Alberta, for most of the last two centuries, were those now known as the Blackfeet Confederacy. This confederacy was mainly made up Algonkian speakers and consisted of the Siksika or Blackfoot, the Kainai or Bloods and the Apikuni or Peigans.

Despite the predominance of the Blackfeet Confederacy in Central Alberta, few of their place names have survived in this region.

A major reason was that these peoples were very hostile towards intruders. Hence, many explorers, traders and missionaries steered clear of their territories. Since these non-natives were the ones who recorded the original place names, their absence meant that not many of the names were put into writing.

Fortunately, there was one individual who filled some of that gap. His name was Jean L’Heureux.

Originally from Quebec, he had been kicked out of a seminary due to an unrecorded scandal. He then moved west and lived among the Blackfeet for nearly 30 years, often describing himself as a priest.

In the early 1870s, L’Heureux became alarmed by the destitution and violence which had followed the arrival of the whiskey traders. He wrote a manuscript about the Blackfeet place names, to make others more aware of the rich culture of these peoples and make them more sensitive to the Blackfeet’s troubles.

His manuscript is fascinating to read. It mentions Ini-tokan or Dead Man’s Head as an area just east of Red Deer. The name may also refer to a prominent sandstone feature in the Red Deer River Canyon, which is still often referred to as The Old Man or The Faces.

He also refers to Kayi-kini or the Elbow, which would be the region along the Red Deer River, between Sylvan and Burnt Lakes and the Canyon. The River takes a sharp bend south in this area and could be looked upon as being elbow-shaped.

Blackfalds Lake is recorded in the manuscript as Mami-ni-oki or Feather Lake as it resembles the shape of a bird’s feather.

Fortunately, Allen Ronaghan, a noted Alberta historian, has translated L’Heureux’s manuscript from French.

He has also identified the location of all the places mentioned in the text. Moreover, Dr. Ronaghan‘s work has now been published as a book by the Central Alberta Historical Society.

For those interested in a unique publication of Alberta history, this book, Three Persons and The Chokitapix, can be purchased at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery.