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Cree Place Names

Cree is the most frequently represented Native language among official Alberta place names. A study of such names and what we know of their origins, shows that over 340 of them are either attempts at Cree (e.g. Saskatchewan River) or likely anglicized versions of Cree (e.g. Red Deer River).

Slightly less than half of official names with Cree origins attempt to represent the spoken Cree name. Such names, in their written form, often come to us after a certain amount of experimentation in the art of orthography. MacGregor tells us that the Cree name "Saskatchewan" was rendered in at least thirty different spellings before the conventional spelling was adopted (MacGregor [2], p. 17). We are told that the Cree name "Kisiskatchewan" means "swift current" (DB).

Akasu Lake, ten kilometres east of Vegreville, gives us another Cree language name. Like most such names it does not try to render the Cree generic. In other word, we have Akasu Lake, instead of Akasu Sakahikan ("sakahikan" being Cree for lake). We are told "akasu" is a Cree word meaning "sick" and the name may be connected with the smallpox epidemic of the 1870s although it's origins may be much older (DB).

Almost the same number of Cree names appear to be English translations of the original Cree name. For example, Cooking Lake, twenty-five kilometres southeast of Edmonton, has a name which, we are told, is translated from the Cree "Opt mi now wa sioo" (DB). The Red Deer River we are told uses an incorrect translation of the Cree word "was-ka-sioo" which actually refers to Elk as opposed to Red Deer (DB).

There are also forty-one cases where unofficial Cree names are known for geographical features officially named in English or French and where the Cree name has a different meaning. For example, Sturgeon River, thirty-three kilometres northeast of Edmonton, is not a name of Native origin although the Cree did have their own name for it. "Mi-koo-oo-pow" apparently translates as "Red Willow" (DB).

Cree place names in central Alberta often recall hostilities between the Cree and Blackfoot probably from the nineteenth Century. Battle River is said to be a translation of the Cree name "no-tin-to" suggesting that Cree and Blackfoot frequently battled in the Vicinity. The Stoney and Blackfoot also have names for the river which raises the question (perhaps unanswerable) of which name was in use first (DB).

Ghostpine Creek, which flows into the Red Deer River twenty-five kilometres southeast of Three Hills, is said to be named for the ghosts of Cree killed at nearby Pine Lake about 1830 or earlier. The legend says the Cree camp was asleep when attacked by Blackfoot Indians. Pine Lake was once known as Ghostpine Lake but then shortened (DB).

The sort of animosity between the Cree and Blackfoot suggested by these names may have been greatly exaggerated. Russell writes: "There is nothing to suggest chronic hostility between the Cree and Assiniboin on the one hand, and the Blackfoot Nation on the other ... the evidence ... all indicates that the Cree and Assiniboin were in alliance with the Blackfoot and their allies" (Russell, p. 199).3

Milloy agrees: "Despite the contention in many works that the Cree and Blackfoot were implacable enemies from their first meeting, the opposite is true" (Milloy, p. 6). And, according to the testimonies of Saukamapee (a Cree who was later adopted by the Peigan of the Blackfoot Nation) as related to David Thompson, in 1723 Peigan messengers visited a Cree camp to solicit support in a battle with the Snake Indians. "Twenty Cree volunteered to aid the Blackfoot" (Milloy, p. 7).

There are also Cree names in central Alberta commemorating peace between the Cree and Blackfoot. Peace Hills, which is a translation of the Cree 'Wi-ta-ski oocha-ka-tin-ow." commemorates peace made between the two groups in 1867. The town of Wetaskiwin, just three kilometres away, also derives its name from that peace accord (DB). Neutral Hills, forty-five kilometres northeast of Coronation, is also said to derive its name from the cessation of hostilities between Blackfoot and Cree, There are at least two legends describing how it happened. One says the Great Spirit caused the hills to rise out of the ground thus humbling the warring parties and moving them to peace (DB). Also, Driedmeat Hill, eighteen kilometres southwest of Camrose, has a legend which is a Romeo and Juliet-sort of story about a Cree brave and Blackfoot maiden who fell in love and married secretly despite a ban on intertribal marriage. They were discovered when someone spied the buffalo meat they left to dry in the sun (DB),

The names Peace River and Peace Point (the latter located fifty miles up the Peace River from Lake Athabasca) have origins which are similar to those of Wetaskiwin and Neutral Hills. According to Alexander Mackenzie, the point and river were named to commemorate a final peace between the Dunne-za and the Cree. According to Russell, such battles were often used unnecessarily as evidence of the Cree's northwestward expansion into Dunne-za territory (see more in section on the Dunne-za). Russell supposes the peace at Peace Point was negotiated by a Cree named Waupisoo.

"In the HBC journals written at York Factory between 1715 and 1721, there are references to a Cree leader named Captain Swan, or Waupisoo, who went into the Athabasca area to make alliances with the local Indians. Swan described the Athabasca River and its tar formations and a large lake, Lake Athabasca. He made several trips into the area, wintering with the unnamed Indians with whom he arranged a truce ... it is likely that it was Swan's efforts in the 1710s which were remembered at Peace Point" (Russell, p. 35).

Another Alberta place name refers more specifically to this "Captin Swan," It is Wapasu Creek which flows into the Muskeg River sixty-eight kilometres north of Fort McMurray. According to the records, this creek was "named for the Native who, according to the York Fort Journal entry of 12 June 1719, was 'Swan' who apparently was the man who introduced the bituminous sands to the white man" (DB).

Generally we do not know how long extant Cree names have been in use. As mentioned above there is evidence of the Cree in Alberta before Anthony Henday entered the region via the Battle River in 1754. If so, some Cree names may well have been in use before that time and may have begun to gain usage among newcomers after they arrived.

We are told Ribstone Creek, which flows into the Battle River forty-six kilometres south of Lloydminster, is a rough translation of the Cree "Assinikospikeganit" (DB). The name refers to a nearby stone with markings which resemble a man's, or possibly a buffalo's, ribs. The name Ribstone appears frequently in historic records from the time of Henday's first visit (MacGregor, p. 83). Also bearing the name "Ribstone" are a hamlet, a former locality and a lake.

Iron Creek flows into Battle River seven kilometres northeast of Hardisty and is named for a meteorite which was once located on a nearby hill. Indian names for the creek are not listed in the data base, however, Captain William Butler in 1874 noted the meteor had great significance for Natives in the region before being removed and sent, first to Victoria Settlement, and then to a museum in Toronto (DB).4

A surprising fact is that although there are seventy-one Native names in Alberta known to commemorate a specific tribe (e.g. Fort Chipewyan or Sarcee Butte), only two of them (Tallcree Indian Reserves) refer to the Cree. This despite the fact Cree names are the most prevalent among Native place names. This may suggest something about the relationship between the Cree and the Euro-Canadians who first came to Alberta. It seems Cree-speaking peoples were more likely to be with, or have the attention of, the people who were pointing at places and naming them and were less likely to be bystanders in the naming process.

As for names which commemorate Individuals or events, there are at least thirty-one such Cree names, which is roughly one-third of all such Native place names in Alberta.


3.And "In 1772-1773 Cocking wrote of Cree living with the Gros Ventre at their bison pound and listed the various allies of the Cree: Gros Ventre, Peigan, Blood, Blackfoot and Sarcee" (Russell, p. 151).

4.MacGregor writes that despite rumblings of a Metis uprising in 1869, "perhaps of more immediate concern to the Battle River Indians was the sacrilege practised on their Manito stone, the one which ignorant white men were to call the Iron Creek Meteorite" (p. 47). The missionary John McDougall is credited with having "discovered" the stone in 1865 and being responsible for its removal (MacGregor, p. 47). Butler writes that the Indians predicted grave misfortune when the stone was removed and that those predictions came true. "Never had so many afflictions of war, famine and plague fallen upon the Crees and the Blackfeet as during the year which succeeded the useless removal of their Manito-stone" (MacGregor. p. 48).

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