“Windows into Gwich’in Culture:” Restoring Traditional Place Names

Jul 19, 2013

Gwich’in Place Names Officially Recognized by Northwest Territories Government

Traditional place names can point not only to significant physical sites for Aboriginal peoples, but can also embody important intangible cultural values. Last month, the Gwich’in people celebrated the restoration of 414 of their traditional place names, which were officially recognized by the government of the Northwest Territories.

In Canada, the 19th and 20th centuries saw many traditional Aboriginal place names that described rivers, lakes, mountains and settlements, displaced by colonial names. The new names often paid homage to distant expedition financiers.

Ingrid Kritsch, Research Director of the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute (GSCI), an IPinCH partner, says that Gwich’in traditional names and stories were being lost and “the elders were quite concerned about that and wanted to make sure that [they] were recorded for the future generations.”

Since 1992, Kritsch, along with a team of collaborators at GSCI, has worked to record traditional Gwich’in place names in the Gwich’in Settlement Area and to excavate the stories behind them.

“The methodology is to use 1:50,000 scale maps, sit down with the elders, record the names on the map,” Kritsch says, “and then go out to as many of these places as we can, with both elders and young people, to visit these places and to document them further.”

After years of recording, Kritsch and her collaborators sat down with a group of elders and deliberated on which names to submit for official recognition. The elders identified 500 names and these were sent to the Northwest Territories government, which recognized 414 of those submitted.

A large portion of the new names (326) identify sites that have never been named on a map before, while 80 will replace former European names. Eight traditional Gwich’in names will exist side-by-side with the European names.  

Incorporating these place names into official maps honours the significant tangible and intangible values associated with traditional Gwich’in sites. 


Ingrid Kritsch is an IPinCH Research Team member and the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute is an IPinCH partner organization. 

View the Gwich'in Place Names Map here >  

Hear Ingrid Kritsch on the CBC program As It Happens (interview at 17.20).

Hear Ingrid Kritsch on the CBC-NWT program, the Trailbreaker

Read more on the NWT government website here >