Inuit Heritage Trust maps traditional names before they’re lost

Place Name Program visited Resolute Bay for mapping project last week

The team behind the Inuit Heritage Trust Inc.’s Place Name Program said mapping traditional names based on local knowledge has been a challenge. Many of the elders they worked with in 2007 are no longer alive. (Photo by Meral Jamal)

By Meral Jamal

The Inuit Heritage Trust’s Place Name Program team visited Resolute Bay for the first time since 2007 to review and collect traditional place names.

Inuit Heritage Trust Inc. manager Lynn Peplinski and co-ordinator Zipporah Ungalaq visited Resolute Bay to document elder-experts and their knowledge of the traditional Inuktut names for locations.

Like in other communities where they worked, Peplinski said mapping traditional names based on Resolute Bay residents’ local knowledge was a challenge. Many of the elders they worked with in 2007 have since died.

It’s also why mapping Inuktut place names continues to be essential.

“Many of those elders are now gone and that’s why these maps are important — so people can continue to access elders’ knowledge,” Peplinski said.

In Resolute Bay, they found community members calling Polar Bear Pass — as it appears on official maps — Nanuit Itillinga, which is a literal translation of the official English name.

But Peplinski and Ungalaq had not heard that name before. Referring to their notes from 2007, they found that elders had identified the same location as ‘Kitturajaaq,’ which was described by the elders as to “cut into, but still attached, like a string under tension” — describing the distinctive long valley-like feature of the area.

The Inuit Heritage Trust is updating this map of traditional place names that it created in 2007. (Photo by Meral Jamal)

They realized Inuit use place names such as Nanuit Itillinga, that have been translated from English, because they are not aware of traditional names.

Transmission of traditional knowledge through the generations has become more challenging: long ago, people learned about place names from direct experience, travelling with their families on the land, they said.

Inuit names are descriptive. They describe fishing lakes, places of thin ice, hunting grounds, walrus haul-outs, or simply the shape of islands or lakes.

This is also why Peplinski said knowledge of traditional place names is so important — Inuktut place names describe where Inuit lived and travelled over time. Losing access to these names is “about language and it’s about saving traditional knowledge,” she said.

For Peplinski, a paper map with traditional place names is also important given limitations yet to be addressed by technology.

“Paper maps are super-important also because they’re better than a screen, which is just too small,” Peplinski added.

Traditional place names also show the incredible extent of where people lived and travelled across northern Canada.

Resolute Bay is just one example of a community that Peplinski and Ungalaq have returned to. Working across Nunavut, they’ve made and distributed free maps to communities including Gjoa Haven, Arviat, Rankin and Chesterfield Inlet, Igloolik Sanirajak and Iqaluit/Kimmirut. They’re currently working on maps for Kinngait, Clyde River, Arctic Bay and Naujaat.

Yet a bigger challenge for their work is not only that knowledge about traditional place names is changing or being lost, but it’s also that none of the names are being made official.

Peplinski said the Government of Nunavut has not had a toponymist — a person who approves official place names — since 2019.

The government has also not approved place names suggested by the Inuit Heritage Trust since 2012 when Peplinski and Ungalaq submitted hundreds of traditional place names on 27 maps to be made official.

According to Peplinski, having traditional place names made official across the territory will ensure they don’t disappear.

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(10) Comments:

  1. Posted by Oh? on

    This is an interesting initiative especially seeing as Resolute was only populated as a result of forced relocation. What makes these places traditional if Inuit have only lived there since the 1950s?

    • Posted by From Away on

      Nevertheless, when Inuit landed in the area, they had to get to know the place and make it their own – for their survival. The place names they gave to places were to help them communicate with others about where they’d been. Those names became their names and continue to be their “traditional “ names today.

    • Posted by Inuk on

      This place was used to travel across and it was hunting grounds in the past, a lot of the areas in Nunavut in the past were always used, before settlements were built.
      It was never empty, we Inuit always travelled and knew the land, it might be good for you to learn this, about how it used to be, today we don’t travel that far anymore, 20-50 miles one way at the most with a skidoo and back home again, we don’t spend as much time out on the land now and I really like how they are collecting the traditional names from elders and I hope they can get more traditional place names from elders before they pass on.

  2. Posted by Dirty dan on

    Kiss river by ship yard is there she blows aground.

  3. Posted by Deeper History on

    This area was frequently used by the Tuniit (Dorset) before the Thule-Inuit colonized their land.

  4. Posted by Archie Angnakak on

    Some Inuit families who lived in camps around Ikpiarjuk (Arctic Bay) and Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet) were also moved to either Resolute Bay or to Grise Fiord. Hence, these same families brought with them the Inuit place names when they were moved to Resolute Bay or Grise Fiord.

    Early newcomers or explorers or missionary workers have written a history of their great Arctic travels. Their Arctic travels were only possible with their Inuit guides. Newcomer travellers, with their Inuit guides, covered immense area of land.

    This immense Inuit knowledge of a large travel area was also documented by GN’s Inuit wildlife harvest study. This GN Inuit wildlife harvest found that Inuit had at least a thousand mile (1,600Km) hunting/travelling radius.

    Inside this, a thousand mile hunting/travellingradius are place names. Good on Nunavut Heritage Trust in collecting this place names from few inuit elders today.

  5. Posted by Tavva on

    And flew , used money, bringing up people from the south to do this work. not cool. need to look after ourselves

    • Posted by From Away on

      The work was done by the Inuit Heritage Trust, a land claim organization, based in Iqaluit. IHT’s job is to support Inuit for this kind of activity.

  6. Posted by C/ on

    It is already late to get into the place names recording work, so many of the older people, elders, with the knowledge have passed away, gathering the knowledge of what remains would be okay.

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