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Monday, July 5, 2021

What's In A Name? by Elizabeth Clements

(This is a re-post of my second (?) blog here back in October 2018 when I became part of the Prairie Rose Publications family. I have made so many wonderful new friends that perhaps this post will be new for them, and for those who have read it three years ago, my apologies. But perhaps with inter-national traveling opening up, you may be tempted to take a trip north of the border and go exploring. The Cypress Hills is only a 45-minute drive from where I live. High on a hill in town, I can see the dark smudge to the east that is the pine forest known by the Blackfoot as The Thunder-Breeding-Hills, the setting for my trilogy.

Have you ever looked at a map and been amazed by the plethora of interesting names for places, provinces and states? It’s interesting to see the influence of native history in the naming of many places because they were the first inhabitants of the Plains. This is probably one of several reasons why I used the beautiful Cypress Hills as the setting for my book, Beneath A Horse-Thief Moon, because it was referred to as The Thunder-Breeding-Hills by the tribes that roamed the plains leading up to this vast forest. When the Métis fur traders arrived, they called the forest les montagnes des Cypres, which was mistakenly translated into English as Cypress Hills. There are no cypress trees here, mainly pines and aspens.

                                Cypress by Nick Clements Photography

For the purpose of length, I shall restrict my blog to a few places in Alberta and Saskatchewan that derived their names from translations from the numerous First Nations people that roamed the western prairie provinces and American northern western states. Firstly, though, I thought I’d mention that my country’s name, Canada, was given by the French explorer, Jacques Cartier. The Huron-Iroquois word “kanata” means a village or settlement.

In 1535, two Aboriginal youths told French explorer Jacques Cartier about the route to kanata; they were actually referring to the village of Stadacona, the site of the present-day City of Québec. For lack of another name, Cartier used the word “Canada” to describe not only the village but the entire area controlled by its chief, Donnacona.
It wasn’t until 1791 when Canada became the official name of our country.

Alberta was a territory until it became a province of Canada in 1905 (together with Saskatchewan) and was named in honor of the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria—Princess Louise Caroline Alberta. Famous Lake Louise in Banff National Park is also given part of that royal name. Saskatchewan derived its name from the Saskatchewan River, which the indigenous Cree people called Kisiskatcfhewsani Sipi, meaning “the swiftly flowing river”. This same river flows through Medicine Hat but is called the South Saskatchewan River.

When Sir John A. Macdonald decided Canada needed a transcontinental railway, the Canadian Pacific Railway was constructed. Many communities sprang up along the railway line. This was the case with Medicine Hat, which is the English translation of Saamis (pronounced Sa-Mus), the Blackfoot word for the “eagle feather headdress worn by medicine men”.

Medicine Hat, the city where I live, has several legends for the origin of its name. The most popular version (and which I prefer) is that the Cree and Blackfoot had an altercation in the fork of the South Saskatchewan River and in the fierce battle, the Cree medicine man lost his headdress in the river, hence it became known as the place where the medicine man lost his hat.

The bend is the low point of the river (battle)
Photo by Nick Clements Photography

Another legend  of this community’s name is about a mythical Mer-man  river serpent named  Soy-yee-daa-beethe creator, who appeared to a hunter and instructed him to sacrifice his wife to get mystical powers, which were manifested in a special hat.” I much prefer the official one that was chosen about the Cree medicine man.

There are a few interesting historical facts about Medicine Hat. Rudyard Kipling visited  Medicine Hat circa 1905 and immortalized it by saying it’s a city with “all hell for a basement” because the city is situated over massive reserves of gas. That’s why our city is also known as The Gas City.

After the 1988 winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Alberta, that city was going to dismantle the large teepee they had built for the Games. One of our local citizens and art collector heard of the plan and initiated the purchase and it was dismantled and re-erected here. It was named the Saamis Teepee and is officially the tallest teepee in the world. Here is an award-winning photograph my son, Nick, took of the teepee during a lightning show.

    World's tallest tepee, Medicine Hat, Alberta   Photo by Nick Clements Photography

Moving a little further west in the province, we have Calgary, known for the greatest outdoor show on earth, the Calgary Stampede. When the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) established a fort there in 1875, it was originally called Fort Brisebois after a NWMP officer but in 1876  Colonel James Macleod renamed the post Fort Calgary for Calgary Bay in Scotland. The Scottish name is derived from the Gaelic words Cala-ghearridh, meaning pasture by the bay.

Part of the Blackfoot Confederacy, Lethbridge is located in the south-west corner of Alberta just a few miles from the Montana border and nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. This area had many names, such as Coal Banks because of its rich deposits of coal. The Blackfoot called it Aksiiksahko or Steep Banks. It was renamed to Lethbridge in honor of William Lethbridge, a wealthy businessman.

However, besides coal, Lethbridge had a much earlier role when in 1869 the U.S. army outlawed alcohol trading with the Blood nation in Montana. Not to be outdone, two men set up a trading post near Lethbridge, selling mostly alcohol, river water, chewing tobacco and lye. It eventually became nicknamed Fort Whoop-Up. The NWMP took over, bringing law and order to the area. The fort stands today as a popular visitors’ stop and sometimes in the summer there are performances of the RCMP Musical Ride.

                                                   Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Moving east into southern Saskatchewan, we find the historic town of Maple Creek, which is just a few miles from the bulk of the Cypress Hills. For centuries this area was the winter quarters for the various tribes because of the abundance of firewood in the Cypress Hills. In 1875 the NWMP built Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills, operating there until 1883 when it closed the fort and set up barracks in Maple Creek because the railroad had arrived that spring. When the railroad reached the area, the crew quartered here and as was often the case, a tent town sprang up, followed quickly by families that left defunct Fort Walsh and resettled in this growing village. The community was named for the Manitoba maples that grew along the creek. It’s proximity to the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park makes it a popular tourist center for exploring the park a few miles south.

Regina is the capital of Saskatchewan but prior to 1905 this flat area was called the District of the Assiniboine and was the buffalo hunting ground of the Cree. The Cree only killed enough buffalo for meat and used the hides for clothing and covering their teepees. They piled the bones into stacks because they believed the buffalo would return to visit the bones of their herd. They called the area Oskana-Ka-asateki or “the place where bones are piled”. Sadly, the European buffalo hunters came along and shot the buffalo by the thousands for their hides. This is a picture of the bones being loaded onto rail cars for shipment to a bone factory.

                                    Pile of buffalo bones     photo courtesy of Wikipedia

When the fur traders came to the area, they dubbed the site Pile of Bones. The community grew, especially when homesteaders could claim 160 acres of land for ten dollars. In 1882, the town elders felt the settlement should have a more dignified name and decided on Regina, this being the Latin word for queen. Regina also became the headquarters for the North-West Mounted Police for many years and remains the training ground for the Mounties to this day.

An unusual name for a community was derived from the Cree who called the saskatoon berry misâskwatômina, which grows in abundance in the area. When the railroad created a settlement, they called the village Saskatoon.  In 1883 the Toronto Methodists wanted to escape from the bad influence of alcohol in the city and decided to set up a “dry” community. They traveled via the newly constructed railroad to Regina and then made the rest of the journey by horse-drawn cart. However, they were unable to buy a large tract of land to suit their needs, and simply integrated into the community.
Another unique name for a city is Moose Jaw. The Cree called it moscâstani-sîpiy which means a warm place by the river, perhaps because of the Coteau Range that shelters the valley. The beginning of the word, moscâ sounds a bit like moose jaw. Also, some people felt the nearby creek was shaped somewhat like a moose’s jawbone. The Dominion government decided to make Moose Jaw a major terminal because of the abundance of water supplies for their steam engines. 

In 2000 I was fortunate to spend a few days in Moose Jaw to visit the wolf caves located on private land in the Big Muddy a good drive south from the city. The caves were used by cattle rustlers and horse thieves in the late 1800’s. What a treasure trove of history and landscape. I actually stood in a wolf cave, called Sam Kelly's Cave, and breathed in the suffocating smell of dirt. No wonder I  could draw on my reaction to this experience and use it in my Prairie Moon trilogy.      

Sam Kelly's Cave (wood added to keep cave from caving in)
Another experience—unforgettable—was visiting the underground tunnels in Moose Jaw. For decades, the city officials denied these tunnels existed until one day a city bus fell through a cave-in and the secrets were exposed. One section of the tunnels shows where Chinese hid from persecution and worked for a pittance. The living conditions affected me so deeply that it compelled me to write a poem about it and that history bothers me to this day. There is another tunnel tour--Al Capone Tunnels--that explores the prohibition days and some very interesting tales, especially a female bootlegger who took unusual risks. I so have to go back to Moose Jaw and area and do some more exploring.

When we left Moose Jaw after four days of exploring, we drove west toward Eastend and the rolling terrain where Sitting Bull once camped out after Custer’s last stand. This inspired yet another story idea and several chapters which I would love to finish this winter.

There are so many more Canadian places of interest, but I have to rein in my enthusiasm for fear of making you go cross-eyed from so many words. Thus, I just selected a few names that are associated with the “taming of the West”. If a vacation brings you to Canada, this is just a sampling of really neat places to visit and explore. I’d love to hear about some of the names of places that resonate with you.

For more pictures of the setting for my trilogy, please visit my website
to see pictures of Mountie life at Fort Walsh, beautifully captured by my son's excellent eye for detail.    

Prairie Moon Trilogy set in the Cypress Hills


  1. I do remember reading this blog. I liked it then, and I like it now. I can tell most of these names are Canadian on sight. My favorite is Medicine Hat. Moose Jaw is kinda quirky, too.
    It's good to get some history on our neighbor to the north. I've visited several places in Canada and always found Canadians a lovely, friendly people.
    Good blog, Elizabeth.

    1. How kind of you to read this again, let alone leave your kind comments. Our countries are so beautiful and full of interesting names and history. I wish you and I could meet somehow, but in the interim, FB is a great "chatting" place.

  2. I remember this one, but it was great to read it again. I love how you have woven all these real places into your work. I have visited Canada, but only on both coasts, leaving out a vast swathe of fascinating country in the middle.

    1. I'm so happy you took the time to read this again and comment. You are always so kind and supportive. I hope you can visit Canada again some time and get a chance to visit Alberta let alone any of the other provinces. I find Alberta quite unique in that it has a bit of everything: mountains, lakes, forests, prairies, grain fields and oil fields and even badlands that echo the Grand Canyon. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Love the story about Medicine hat, Elizabeth!
    Fascinating article and interesting how these landscapes and their histories feed into your writing. Thank you

  4. Thanks, Lindsay, so glad you enjoyed reading my blog. Names of places have always interested me and I particularly love the Medicine Hat legend. Our entire province has loads of interesting names. Years ago I made up a game for my boys. I made a list of clues and they were to apply the correct name of the town or city with the clue: example: a colored animal: Red Deer, one of our ten Alberta cities; a color and part of a bed: Purple Springs (a village not far from us). It's fun. Thank you for stopping by, Lindsay and for your kind words.

  5. Replies
    1. So glad you enjoyed reading about some interesting places here I've had the fortune to visit and explore. Thanks for stopping by.

  6. Enjoyed this post. The contrast between the places and histories of their names gives a good feel about how a place influences a story and can become a character in its own right.

  7. It's wonderful how many places have an English meaning inspired by the translation of the tribes that roamed here. Thanks for stopping by, Ann. I'mso glad you enjoyed the post.