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Part of a special feature celebrating and recognizing the contribution and impact of Aboriginal Peoples in N.L. and highlighting contemporary topics and opportunities related to Indigenous Peoples worldwide. This theme coincides with Aboriginal Peoples Week 2017: Building Reconciliation taking place at Memorial from March 20-24.


By Janet Harron

Place names have been used by cultures the world over to identify lakes, mountains, hunting grounds, rivers and other locations of interest.

Now, place names of the Labrador Innu have been collected on the Pepamuteiati Nitassinat (“As We Walk Across Our Land”) website.

Pepamuteiati Nitassinat is the culmination of a 40-year-project involving geographers, linguists, anthropologists and, first and foremost, the Labrador Innu themselves.

Dual-naming system

Recently approved by the Newfoundland and Labrador Geographical Names Board (NLGNB), the 452 Innu traditional names of features and places of social and economic activities in Southern and Central Labrador will help to preserve an important component of Innu culture in the region.

Officially applying a dual-naming system — using Innu-aimun and English — to the province’s geographical features means that Newfoundland and Labrador is among the first in Canada to do so, following the Northwest Territories’ lead in this respect.

For example, it is anticipated that the Innu name, Tshenuamiu-shipu, for a river also known as the Kenamu River, and the name, Manatueu-shipiss, for the Traverspine River (both major tributaries that flow into Labrador’s Lake Melville) will soon be posted on Labrador Highway road signs.

Wealth of knowledge

The website itself is dedicated to the late Pinip Rich of the former community of Utshimassit (Davis Inlet), and the late Shinipesht Andrew of Sheshatshiu “for their love of Innu place names and their willingness to share their knowledge.”

Pinip Rich could easily recite over 300 Innu places names by heart, and was an excellent map reader.
Pinip Rich could easily recite over 300 Innu places names by heart, and was an excellent map reader.
Photo: Submitted
Shinipesht loved Innu history, and place names were the meshkanau (path) down which he would often take people in talking about Innu history.
Shinipesht Andrew loved Innu history, and place names were the meshkanau (path) down which he would often take people in talking about Innu history.
Photo: Submitted

Oral history

Originally begun as a way of documenting Innu land use and occupancy for the purpose of land claims negotiations with the federal and provincial governments, the focus of the project morphed to a means of officializing, or giving legal status to, the names for educational and cultural purposes.

A substantial amount of information on place names was collected by the Innu Nation starting in the late 1970s.

Older hunters and elders were invited to walk on oversized maps in the school gym in Sheshatshiu and the parish hall in Utshimassit (Davis Inlet) in order to point out the locations of place names, as well as old travel routes, camp sites, caches, birth places and good hunting and fishing spots. In the end, nearly 1,600 names were recorded.

An example of a map used in validating the place names collected from Innu elders. The Innu name of Portage Lake, pictured in the lower right-hand side, is Utshimau-nipi, translated as Great Lake. It is located on the ancient travel route from North West River/Sheshatshiu to Meshikamau (Michikamau Lake) in the interior of Labrador. Utshimau-nipi is about 100 kilometres north of Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
An example of a map used in validating the place names collected from Innu elders. The Innu name of Portage Lake, pictured in the lower right-hand side, is Utshimau-nipi, translated as Great Lake. It is located on the ancient travel route from North West River/Sheshatshiu to Meshikamau (Michikamau Lake) in the interior of Labrador.
Photo: Submitted

Decades of effort

Later, a database was established; later still, work began on clarifying locations and standardizing the spellings of the Innu-aimun words.

In 2004 anthropologist Peter Armitage, ethnolinguist José Mailhot and Memorial linguist and professor emerita Dr. Marguerite MacKenzie began to complete the database: the LABTOP project consisted of validating place names from all the previous research projects.

The place names from the older databases were compared and located on computer maps, spellings and meanings were clarified and standardized whenever possible, and problematic names starred for fieldwork validation.

Problematic names and locations were validated by Mr. Armitage and by Innu co-researchers Pashin Penashue, Atuan Penashue, Napess Ashini and Ishpashtien Piwas.

The researchers also worked with Innu elders and place name experts Etuat Mistenapeo, Ishpashtien Benuen, Ishpashtien Penunsi, Mani-Aten Penashue, Mishen Jack, Napaien Mollen, Nishet Penashue, Nui Penashue, Pien Penashue, Pinashue Penashue, Puniss Nuke, Shapatish Malec, Shuashem Nui, Tshani Rich and Zacharie Bellefleur.

One of Pinip Rich's many detailed list of Innu place names and features in Labrador.
One of Pinip Rich’s many detailed list of Innu place names and features in Labrador.
Photo: Submitted

Legal status

Eventually a detailed website including maps was readied for publication and the process of officialization began. Officialization means names can begin to be used on maps and will have legal status in land management, property transactions and road signage.

The responsibility for naming in Canada lies with the provinces, territories and federal agencies such as Parks Canada, Canada Post and the Department of National Defence.

Collectively these entities form the Geographical Names Board of Canada (GNBC), a body which tries to maintain national standards and ensure that names on maps and in official publications are applied consistently. Once names are official they are then managed by the GNBC and published in the organization’s official document, the Gazette.

“The names as processed and submitted were of extraordinary quality and approval was little more than a formality because of the careful work and dedication of the researchers and of the Innu Nation.” — Randy Hawkins, NLGNB

With regards to Newfoundland and Labrador adopting a dual-naming policy, Mr. Armitage says it was fortuitous that the project members did not have to wait for the final agreement during the land claims negotiations.

“The lovely thing about this arrangement with the Innu is that we didn’t have to wait for the final agreement to be signed for the names to be officialized,” he said.

“History, culture and respect took precedence, which was very progressive of the Newfoundland and Labrador Geographical Names Board and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. A hearty thanks to Randy Hawkins, the secretary of the board, for his collaboration over the years — the work of the NLGNB is one of the functions of our government that is totally invisible to the citizenry and often taken for granted.”

For his part, Mr. Hawkins says the Newfoundland and Labrador Geographical Names Board regards the approval of more than 452 Innu names as a “landmark achievement.”

“The names as processed and submitted were of extraordinary quality and approval was little more than a formality because of the careful work and dedication of the researchers and of the Innu Nation,” he said.

Mr. Armitage and Dr. MacKenzie hope that non-Innu people will make use of these names when travelling throughout Labrador, rather than feeling the need to re-name geographic features that are already named.

From left are Peter Armitage and Dr. Marguerite MacKenzie.
From left are Peter Armitage and Dr. Marguerite MacKenzie.
Photo: Chris Hammond

“This has been a small but important contribution to the Innu and our knowledge of the cultural history of our province,” they said, jointly.

“We hope that this project will help many future generations of Innu people maintain their connections to their language and the land. Place names anchor people’s imaginations to the landscape, and the stories that are told using these place names are an important part of Innu history.”


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