Website launched for Yukon place names

Have you ever wondered how Whitehorse got its name? Or wanted to know what the name Sekulmun Lake means?

A new website will let you find out.

You can also find out how place names in the Yukon are chosen, what guiding principles are involved, and even how to go about proposing a place name yourself.

Click on and you'll discover an aqua-coloured screen that draws back to reveal stunning photos of a number of Yukon places.

These include Alligator Lake, or Jekudìtl’eda in the Southern Tutchone language (meaning "where ice breaks up and grayling come through the creek") and Old Woman Rock on the Yukon River below the mouth of Fortymile, known as Nằnìdhät in the Hän language.

You can also click on loudspeaker icons and hear these names being pronounced by fluent First Nations speakers.

The website is being launched by the Yukon Geographical Place Names Board to provide ready access to information about place names and about the role of the Board itself, according to Board member Margaret Workman.

"The website allows people to view the work of the Board and provides information on what the Board does," Workman says. 

Geographical place names are an essential part of Yukon's heritage, as the website points out.

"They preserve a record of the territory's rich history and culture, giving the landscape power and meaning," says the site.

Place names are also extremely important to First Nations people, notes Workman, who recently retired after a distinguished career as a native language instructor and Southern Tutchone language specialist at the Yukon Native Language Centre.

"Yukon First Nations people named rivers, mountains, lakes and landmarks long before the first non-native explorers and settlers arrived in the territory," she says.

Names such as Gyò Cho Chú (Big Salmon River) tell where animals and fish are plentiful, while other names such as Thechằl Maǟn (Sekulman Lake), meaning 'flat stone scraper for hides', describe artifacts, people, and events.

"Today's Yukon First Nations still remember these names and are working to record them for future generations," explains Workman.

Many Yukon place names,however, reflect the choices of eighteenth and nineteenth-century explorers, fur traders and prospectors. An example is Mt. St. Elias being the name initially given to a nearby island by Vitus Bering in 1741 and later given to this prominent Yukon border peak.

But local features often already had aboriginal names with their own cultural significance.

Some early visitors to the territory, such as geologist George Dawson and surveyor William Ogilvie, did record many native names during their years in the Yukon, including the Yusezyu and Tatchun Rivers in central Yukon, and the world-famous "Tron-diuck" River which eventually became known as the Klondike River.

In 1987 Yukon was given the responsibility by the federal government for naming its own geographical features, and the early Yukon Geographical Names Board was set up.

In 1995 the Yukon Geographical Place Names Board was formally established via the Yukon Umbrella Final Land Claim Agreement.

The website notes that the Board's primary job is to consider applications for naming or renaming of places or features within the Yukon, and to make recommendations about such names based on thorough research.

The Board's recommendations are made to the Minister of Tourism and Culture, who makes the final decisions.

The Board's mandate does not include the naming or renaming of features within municipal boundaries such as roads, buildings, or bridges.

Today there is a detailed process in place for considering and approving new names, including the establishment in some cases of alternate names, a procedure that helps preserve First Nation place names, and is unique in Canada.

"Alternate names recognize the existence of more than one name for a feature or area, " notes board co-chair John Ritter.

"Whitehorse and Kwanlin are now used almost interchangeably by many First Nation people. It's important to recognize both names. There are many examples of this duality in naming throughout the Yukon."

The website also notes that under the Land Claims Final Agreement, the Board must consult with the appropriate Yukon First Nation if a proposed name is on its settlement land.

It must also give first priority to names of longstanding local usage, especially indigenous names in the local native language.

It's the responsibility of Garry Njootli, the Yukon Toponymist, to check applications to make sure that the proposed feature is accurately located, and that its meaning, spelling, and cultural significance are correctly documented.

"I do the background work for the applications," explains Njootli. "I make sure the latitude and longitude is correct, and I also contact the First Nation if the name is on their settlement land.

Njootli is also working with the Yukon Native Language Centre to record soundfiles of elders speaking the names so that there is a permanent record of the correct pronunciation which can be incorporated into the Yukon Geographical Place Names Database.

The Board goes to great lengths to verify all the relevant documentation for a feature, and will invite elders to Board meetings to provide pronunciations, spellings, and translations.

"Board members want to make an informed recommendation on each submission that comes before them. The elders help us to sort through all the information," notes Ritter.

In considering applications for unnamed features -- those for which no local names exist -- the Board follows the principle of giving preference to names from native languages, names that describe the feature, or names associated with historical events or with people who have made an important contribution to the area being named.

"The Yukon Board follows the same principles as those of the Geographical Names Board of Canada," notes co-chair Robert Lee Jackson.

A section of the website entitled Get Involved lists the principles of naming and provides a downloadable application form which can be completed and submitted for consideration by the Board.

"The Board welcomes submissions and encourages the interest and involvement of the public, " adds Jackson.

The Board consists of six members appointed by the Yukon Minister of Tourism and Culture, three of whom are nominated by CYFN and three by the Yukon Government, and who serve three-year terms.

Current CYFN nominees, besides Workman, who was appointed for her third term in June, are Randall Tetlichi of Old Crow, and Robert Lee Jackson originally from Teslin.

The three Yukon Government nominees are John Ritter, director of the Yukon Native Language Centre, retired federal hydrographer Monty Alford, and Polly Thorp of Whitehorse.

Jeff Hunston, a Manager in the Department of Yukon Tourism and Culture, is the Yukon representative on the Geographical Names Board of Canada, and serves as a non-voting member of the Yukon Board.

The new website provides other information too, including annual YGPNB reports and links to other related sites.

Eventually the YGPNB site will be linked to the Yukon Government database, which contains thousands of Yukon place names.

Meanwhile users can consult the site for annual board reports dating back to 1995 which contain all the place names approved for each year, as well as photographs.

So click on and take a stroll through Yukon history and culture reflected in its place names.