Haida Nation is ‘Giving Back Names’

Twelve Haida place names across Haida Gwaii are being restored from their brief colonial reference as a part of an ongoing project that has “no end goal.”

Resolved to honour their ancestors, descendants of the Haida Nation have restored 12 ancestral place names in their territory.

Gaagwiis, Jason Aslop, President of the Council of the Haida Nation (CHN) says colonial place names have had a brief existence in Haida territories and as place names are restored, ancient knowledge is unlocked.

Names carry a “deep rooted knowledge of a place that reveals origin stories, traditional uses of an area, interconnectedness between features of the landscape, seascapes, supernaturals and humans over time,” says Gaagwiis in a press release published on January 7.

The restoration project is a legal relationship between two nations: Canada and Haida. Each government changes or restores the names through their own legal processes. 

With this restoration work, “people will start to ask — Why that name? What does it mean?” Gaagwiis tells IndigiNews over the phone. “It starts to unlock ancient knowledge, the curiosity, the thinking of our ancestors.”

“So many of our place names have been overlaid with colonial names over the years. It was a lot to understand the process for the government, but for the Haida Nation, it’s not a new thing,” Gaagwiis says.

According to SGaan Kwahagang, James McGuire, who works in collections, repatriation and communications at Saahlinda Naay, the Haida Gwaii Museum in HlG̲aagilda (Skidegate), science places Haida people more than 14,000 to 15,000 years in their territories, oral histories much further. When talking about restoring place names, he says, language matters.

“We say ‘briefly known as’ and the colonial name, because it causes people to think about the vast amount of time our people have been here,” SGaan Kwahagang says. 

Following the links at the bottom of the name restoration page on the Nation’s website, B.C. government website links note the year when colonial names were “adopted.” For example, the place Taaw Tldáaw was “adopted” as ‘Tow Hill’ in 1930. The name Taaw Tldáaw’s carries a story of the significance of the place, SGaan Kwahagang says, like so many other place names across the territories.

In 1933 Canada changed for themselves the name of the Juus Ḵáahlii inlet to “Prince George Street. The Haida name stretches back to when the Juus clan claimed the inlet, SGaan Kwahagang says, which “could have happened when the inlet was formed, which could have been around 9,000 years ago.”

“There’s way more history in labeling things properly and using the proper language, and we’re all stronger for it. When islands and mountains and volcanoes are named after the supernaturals who walked amongst them, you’re reminded you’re walking the same footsteps of the ancestors who witnessed those, and also those supernaturals.”

Just the beginning

In late 2016, direction from Haida citizens through the Nation’s annual House of Assembly led to a resolution named ‘Giving Back Names,’ intended to honour Haida ancestors and continue to restore original ancestral place names. 

Haida Gwaii has a long history of language preservation and restoration and colonial resistance. 

Haida have occupied their territory since time immemorial and restoration work has been taking place for a long time, Gaagwiis says, and will continue into the future.

“Our people stood up in the 80s to look after Gwaii Haanas. That was a big shift in putting that out there to the world, in terms of using our own place names…people referred to the area as ‘South Moresby,’” Gaagwiis says. 

In 2010, the provincial government passed Bill 18, the Haida Gwaii Reconciliation Act, which, under Canadian law, legally restored the name of ‘Haida Gwaii’ to what was colonially referred to as ‘the Queen Charlotte Islands.’ 

CHN’s culture and language committee worked with and took direction from language speakers, knowledge holders and community members to decide which areas to focus on first, Gaagwiis says.

A lot of work has been done as a part of the Nation’s title case, including evidence of litigation on identifying Haida place names around Haida Gwaii, he says, which was extremely helpful throughout the process. 

“There have been quite a lot of moving parts to doing this work,” Gaagwiis says.

In some cases, names were restored from anglicized versions of the place to their proper Haida names. In other cases, Elders requested specific names to be removed. 

CHN received a letter from the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program (SHIP) requesting changes related to “bad actors from a colonial sense — Francis Poole, Robert Burnaby, in particular,” Gaagwiis says.

Gaagwiis, Jason Aslop, elected president of the Council of the Haida Nation. Photo provided by Council of the Haida Nation.
An aerial shot of T’áalan Stl’áng, briefly known as Lepas Bay, is a two-mile stretch of sandy beach in northern Haida Gwaii.
T’áalan Stl’áng, briefly known as Lepas Bay, is one of 12 places whose names have been restored. Photo by Jeffrey Gibbs provided by X̱aad Kíl Née language group.

Change takes courage

The Nation worked with the X̱aad Kíl Née language program in G̲aw Tlagée (Old Massett) and the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program (SHIP) in HlG̲aagilda to acquire recordings for people to correctly pronounce and use the names in both dialects, accessible on the CHN website

Today, there are three dialects of the Haida language: an amalgamation of southern dialects formed into one dialect known as Xaayda Kil; an amalgamation of northern dialects known as X̱aad Kil; and another dialect spoken in Alaska also called X̱aad Kil, according to Jasḵwaan Bedard, who’s from the Tsiits Git’anee Eagle clan, and one of the coordinators of the X̱aad Kil Née language immersion program. 

CHN worked with and continues to work with Elders, community members and language groups of both Xaayda Kil and X̱aad Kil for appropriate naming and pronunciation, says Gaad Gas Raven Ryland, communications executive assistant for CHN. It’s work that “has no end goal,” she says.

An important part of restoring places back to their proper names involves emergency situations, Gaagwiis says. 

“In emergency response situations, traditional names are referred to, and people who aren’t Haida will have to learn, understand and internalize them,” he says, adding that “as we work with local municipal leaders, there have been no objections along the way.”

“Everyone was willing to learn, and adapt to learning the Haida place names.”

The Nation partnered with the BC Geographical Names Board to replace Haida names on government records, and consulted with the North Coast Regional District, Archipelago Search and Rescue, BC Parks, Parks Canada, Recreation Sites and Trails BC, Avalanche Canada, Canadian Mountain Guides, BC Mountaineering Club, Alpine Club of Canada, Village of Masset, Village of Port Clements.

“As President, I want to acknowledge the work of our staff and team, other Islands leaders, and political support along the way. Change is hard for some and takes courage,” Gaagwiis says.

The twelve place names restored are as follows:

T’áalan Stl’áng (briefly known as ‘Lepas Bay’)
Íits’aaw (briefly known as ‘Mission Hill’) 
Dal Káahlii (briefly known as ‘Delkatla Inlet’) 
Dal Kún (briefly known as ‘Harrison Point’)
Taaw Tldáaw (briefly known as ‘Tow Hill’)
Juus Káahlii (briefly known as ‘Juskatla Inlet’)
Kunxana TlldaGaaw (briefly known as ‘Mount Poole’)
GaysiiGas K’iidsii (briefly known as ‘Burnaby Strait’)
K’iid Xyangs K’iidaay (briefly known as ‘Dolomite Narrows/Burnaby Narrows’)
Gid Gwaa GyaaGa GawGa (briefly known as ‘Poole Inlet’)
Sk’yaaw GawGa (briefly known as ‘Francis Bay’)
Sk’yaaw Kun (briefly known as ‘Poole Point’)

Pronunciations for the names are shared on the CHN website.

The Nation is working with language speakers, knowledge holders and local leaders to identify which place names will be restored next, which Gaagwiis  explains is, “an important step in the process of reconciliation.”

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