PLACE NAMES AND PEOPLE
All that whole area just full of trails, all got their
own names too. Fort Selkirk not that before, same with Seventeen
-Grace Johnson, 1993
My grandfather told me stories and I'm sixty something. Those
stories come back clear.
-Johnson Edwards, 1993.
Throughout my letter I have retained the native names of
geographical points wherever I could learn them. In my opinion,
this should always be studied. The Indian names of the mountains,
lakes and rivers are natural landmarks for the traveller, whoever
he may be; to destroy these by substituting words of a foreign
tongue is to destroy the natural guides... Another very good reason
why these names should be preserved is that some tradition of
tribal importance is always connected with them. These people have
no written language, but the retention of their native names is an
excellent medium through which to learn their history.
-E. J. Glave, 1890, quoted in Reading Voices.
Place Names as Memories
The intimate relationship between Northern Tutchone people and
the land is reflected in their use of place names. They have a name
for every trail, hill, lake, river, and mountain. Names are often
descriptive and evoke legends, stories of people who spent time at
that place, and memories of things that have happened there.
Anthropologist Julie Cruikshank has suggested that First Nations
people use places instead of dates as a way to organize and focus
their memories of the past.
Place Names as Stories
Appendix 1 in this manual lists traditional place names within
the Selkirk First Nation traditional territory. Northern Tutchone
people call the Yukon River, Tagé Cho, meaning "big
river." Sè ké nek is one name for the
Pelly River. It means "poling boat all the time" (E. Simon,
FSEOP 1985). (The Selkirk Noun Dictionary gives
Ts’éki’ Netú as the name for Pelly River, possibly a
different pronunciation or spelling.)
The Northern Tutchone name for Victoria Rock is Tthi Ts'et 'yan
or T'thi Ts'ach'an. According to one story, the rock is
the figure of a young woman in a puberty hood who didn't follow the
proper rituals and turned to stone. Another story, told by Harry
Baum and Johnson Edwards, says that Victoria Rock is the figure of
a Han woman from the Eagle River who could turn herself into
animals. This was one of the places where she rested.
The basalt wall across from Fort Selkirk is called Melú
and the hill visible from Fort Selkirk to the northeast is called Eté
cho meaning "oldest people" (T. McGinty, FSEOHP,
Nju Yen Tlek meaning "it (the river) cuts through
here", is also known as Three-way Channel, an important
traditional fishing site about 39 km downriver of Fort Selkirk.
During an archaeology project sponsored by the Heritage Branch and
the Selkirk First Nation, a number of artefacts were found here
including five fish baskets, three hammerstones, and a bow.
Sedzuan Tagé, or Willow Creek, is named after an old
Selkirk chief. Hed dá nek or McGregor Creek, means
Renaming the Landscape
Many newcomers who came to the territory in the 19th and earlier 20th century
didn't realize that most features already had names or else they
found the First Nations names hard to pronounce. They renamed many
of the places they visited and wrote these names on early maps.
Robert Campbell named the Pelly River in 1840 after Sir John Henry
Pelly, governor of the Hudson's Bay Co. In 1848, Campbell
christened his trading post at the confluence of the Pelly and
Yukon Rivers, Fort Selkirk, after Thomas Douglas, the fifth Earl of
Selkirk. Mount Pitts (Ddhaw Tsawa), behind Fort Selkirk, is
named after Harold 'Buffalo' Pitts, who for many years ran Harper's
Trading Post at Fort Selkirk. In 1909, Pitts requested that this
name be officially recorded, stating that "he was somewhat
like a mule, without pride of ancestry or hope of posterity."
Five other mountains in the area are named after the commanding
officer of the Yukon Field Force, Col. T.D.B. Evans, and the four
soldiers who died in the Yukon. Victoria Rock got its name because
the shape of the rock reminded steamboat crews of the dumpy figure
of Queen Victoria.
A few early visitors, such as the geologist George Dawson and
Selkirk's first missionary, Archdeacon Thomas Henry Canham, made an
effort to learn and record the local names. The anthropologists and
linguists of today owe much to the work of these people.
Reclaiming the Traditional Names
During land claims research in the 1970s and 1980s, First
Nations people began mapping their traditional territories. Elders
worked with researchers to document the traditional trails, fish
camps, hunting areas, etc. as well as the traditional place names.
About 1975, the Northern Native Language Centre (now the Yukon
Native Language Centre) began working with Yukon First Nations
people to put their languages into written form. An important part
of this work was recording place names. John Ritter of the Yukon
Native Language Centre worked with Selkirk elders Tommy McGinty and
Johnson Edwards to prepare a Fort Selkirk Noun Dictionary with
the Northern Tutchone names for many features in the Fort Selkirk
area. Since 1986, the Yukon Geographical Names Board has worked
with First Nations people to officially recognize many traditional
names. For example, two of the Von Wilczek Lakes south of Pelly
Crossing are now known as Lutsäw Tú Lake (Jackfish Lake)
and T'the Ndu Lake (Rock Island Lake).
T.H. Canham, 1898. Vocabulary English-Wood Indian. London: Society for
Promoting Christian Knowledge, 18 p. YA Pam 1898-08
R. Coutts, 1980. Yukon Places & Names.
Julie Cruikshank, 1991. Dän dhá Ts'edenintth'é - Reading Voices.
R. Gotthardt, 1987. Selkirk Indian Band. Culture and Land Use Study.
C. McClellan et al, 1987. Part of the Land, Part of the Water.
John Ritter, Johnson Edwards, Tommy McGinty, 1977. Fort Selkirk Noun Dictionary.