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What's in a name?


This week’s #TeachingsTuesday was inspired by a reflection shared within our Culturally Committed Community by an advisor, Ašli of ƛoʔos First Nation. Ašli’s reflection was prompted by an article she read about the town of Powell River and the ongoing debate on renaming it. This article prompted Ašli to consider the origin of the names given to other locations across Turtle Island. She shares:


"Further reflecting on the article I shared about "Powell River", I have spent the day thinking about history, colonization, and land reciprocity. Over the last several months, I have found that intentionally going to the forest has been an important way for me to connect with my roots, and with who I am. Today, I chose to do some trails in the Capilano Canyon. The rush of the river was truly exhilarating, and it made me feel alive. But while pondering the history of names, I learned that the Capilano River dam is called the "Cleveland Dam". I recognized that it was a colonial name and wondered about it until I went home. Upon my return I did some searching online. First, I looked up the word "Capilano", which was an interesting task in itself. From my first search, I found a page that defined the word as meaning "beautiful river" in the Squamish language. In further searches, the word meaning was described as "the people of the hereditary chief" - and much of the places with "Capilano" in the name are named after Joe Capilano - who is described as either a "Squamish leader" or a "chief". I would be interested in learning from an Elder or knowledge keeper from the Squamish Nation as to whether the word does in fact also mean "beautiful river", or if this misrepresentation of the word might be an intentional way of hiding history.

The second search I did was to learn about who the Cleveland dam was named after. What I learned was that the dam was named after Ernest Albert Cleveland. He is described as an engineer who commissioned the building of the dam. Before this (~1890), he was a "federal surveyor". Curious, I searched for more information on Canadian federal surveyors, particularly around the year 1890. I read about the Dominion Land Survey - another topic I knew nothing about. Essentially, think "survey, settle, and sovereign”. All of this is probably an oversimplification of a lot of history tied together. But it adds to my reflection of the land and its ties to colonial names.

My take away message is that digging into the history of names has also taught me of the history here. I encourage everyone to take some time to learn about the names used in your local regions and reflect on:

  • Whether the whole history of the place is being shared - or is information difficult to find? Does a name glorify a person who contributed to the harms of colonization?

  • If a name has an Indigenous origin - what does the word mean? What significance do you think the word had to the Indigenous peoples of the region?

  • If an Indigenous history is being shared about a name, does it have a colonial lens or is it being told by the Indigenous peoples of the region?

I learned a lot today. And I hope to inspire you to do the same. I challenge you to look up your regional place names and to share what you find, either by replying to this email, or by educating the people in your circle. čɛčɛhatanapɛč"


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