Gwich'in place names project gets Governor General history award

·3 min read

When Alestine Andre and Ingrid Kritsch started work on a small archeological project in Tsiigehtchic, N.W.T., with Jean-Luc Pilon for the Gwich'in Tribal Council in 1992 to document Gwich'in place names, elders asked them to expand it to cover the entire Gwich'in settlement region.

The elders were concerned that the Gwich'in names for places were being lost.

The group agreed and travelled all over the Gwich'in settlement region in the N.W.T. and Yukon, working with 74 elders and traditional land users to document the names and create an inventory of heritage sites.

"They traveled a lot on the land back in that time with elders. They used to do boat trips or Skidoo trips and just do research with elders," said Sharon Snowshoe, the director of culture & heritage with the Gwich'in Tribal Council.

The community-based project, Gwich'in Goonanh'kak Googwandak: The places and names of the Gwich'in, resulted in the creation of an online atlas and place name maps launched in 2015.

Gwich'in Social and Cultural Institute
Gwich'in Social and Cultural Institute

It also resulted in the official recognition of Gwich'in place names.

Snowshoe said the government of the Northwest Territories accepted and approved 414 Gwich'in place names while the Yukon government has approved 60 names of 237 that have been submitted. Snowshoe said the council is waiting for the other names to be approved.

Governor General Award

The project also garnered a Governor General's History Award for Excellence in Community Programming, which it accepted during an online presentation Friday.

In a press release, Kritsch thanked several of her colleagues from the Gwich'in Tribal Council, Carleton University and MDT Communications who helped create the online interactive atlas and maps.

"Talk about teamwork and the power of people from different walks in life and skills coming together for a common goal - to ensure Gwich'in knowledge such as this is shared and carried forward into the future," she said.

The governor general's site for the award states the project "serves as an important legacy for future generations and provides inspiration for other Indigenous communities who are looking to officially recognize Indigenous place names."

Stories behind names

The online atlas shows the different places in the Gwich'in settlement region and pronounces them when users move their cursor over them.

When users use the search function of the website to find places, it provides the background for how the place got its name.

Gwich'in Tribal Council
Gwich'in Tribal Council

One of Snowshoe's favourite is about Vittrekwa River.

"Vittrekwa River means 'don't cry' [River]," she said.

She explained that Neil Colin, a well-known elder in the community who passed away a few years ago, told the story that Old Vittreekwaa cried all the time, day and night after he was born.

He and his parents were going through what's now called Vittrekwa River and other people were moving with their dog teams. Old Vittreekwaa's parents saw a medicine man and asked for his help. The medicine man told them, "Right now, I'm calling this river 'Don't Cry Creek.'''

"And right there, the kid stopped crying," said Snowshoe.

She said the community-based project is very valuable because it uses the language and teaches young people to learn the place names and the history behind them.

"[It's] a gift from the elders to the young people," she said.