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Chipewyan Place Names

Despite the important role which the Chipewyan played in the fur trade as it moved west, there are comparatively few official place names in Alberta originating with the tribe. Of the seventeen names linked to the Chipewyan, thirteen commemorate the tribe but appear to have come into use because of the Cree. For example, Chipewyan Lake and Chipewyan River, about one hundred kilometres west of Fort McMurray, are certainly named after these people but it is unknown if the names were used by the Chipewyan before the Cree names gained popular usage.

Eight names linked to the Chipewyan exist only because the Fort Chipewyan band around Lake Athabasca occupies eight separate bodies of reserve land, most of them very small. Four of them are less than fifty-five acres and two are less than two hundred and fifty acres.

Two names which commemorate a Chipewyan person are Piche Lake and Piche River, about thirty-seven kilometres northeast of Lac La Biche. We are told these features are named after a Chipewyan person who lived at the Heart Lake Reserve (DB).

Other names where Chipewyan origins are suggested seem to have doubtful explanations. For example, Onoway, a village just east of Lac Ste. Anne, is said to employ a Chipewyan word which means "fair field." The story goes that the name would have been a French one. "Beaupre." but there was already a Beaupre elsewhere and a Chipewyan name meaning the same thing was used to avoid duplication (DB).

There is some evidence of Chipewyan names which are unofficial. We are told that the MacKay River, near Fort MacKay, was known to at least one Chipewyan by a word meaning Deep Valley. However, neither name is reported to be in local usage, the preferred name being "Red River." which was in use before 1912 (DB). Another local informant gives "Tlou ch'oh tue" as a Chipewyan name for what is officially Cold Lake.

One would expect that the Chipewyan, who have occupied a significant portion of northeastern Alberta for at least two hundred years, should have many more place names. Their lack of official names and even our lack of knowledge about unofficial names of Chipewyan origin, probably says more about the naming process than it does about the Chipewyan themselves.


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