Place names Essay

This essay has a total of 2001 words and 10 pages.

place names



There is a deep relationship between the environment and Western Apache people. The bonds
between the two are so strong that it is embedded in their culture and history. Keith
Basso, author of Wisdom Sits in Places expanded on this theory and did so by divulging
himself into Western Apaches life. He spent fifteen years with the Apache people studying
their relationship with the environment, specifically concentrating on ‘Place-names.’
When Basso first began to work with the Apache people, one of his Apache friends told him
to ‘learn the names,’ because they held a special meaning with the community. (Cruikshank
1990: 54) Place-names are special names given to a specific locality where an event took
place that was significant in history and crucial in shaping morals and beliefs. Through
the use of place-names, the environment became a teaching tool for Apache people.

Red Lake, the small town where I grew up, is an Ojibwa place-name. The area dates back
9000 yeas ago when the Stone Age peoples first inhabited the region that is now known as
northwestern Ontario. These aboriginals were indigenous people familiar with the
properties of the surrounding plants and wild animals. They lived along the waterways and
treated their environment with respect and celebrated its bounties through their
spirituality. (Web Site #1)

According to Ojibwa legend, thousands of years ago, two hunters came across a very large
moose standing beside a beautiful clear blue lake. The Hunters thought the moose was an
evil spirit named ‘Matchee Manitou’ and they tried to kill it. One of the hunters shot the
animal with an arrow just wounding it. The grand and majestic animal escaped by diving
into the water and disappearing forever. A large pool of blood colored the water red,
masking the once beautiful blue lake. A creature so huge was never to be seen again. The
hunters named the lake ‘Misque Sakigon’ meaning ‘Color of Blood Lake.’ Years later it
became known as ‘Red Lake.’ (Web Site #1)

When I heard this story, 12 years ago, it came from the mouth of my father’s good friend,
an Ojibwa man, named Henry Meekis. I still remember everyone sitting in front of him while
he told the story. His passion for the story permeated the room and we were all
captivated by it.

The importance of place-name study lies in the light it sheds on the cultural history and
heritage of the indigenous people. Many place-names in are drawn from Indigenous
languages such as Apache Cree, Ojibwa etc. Researching place-names of Indigenous origin
requires an understanding of Indigenous principles of naming places, of the application of
names to geographic areas, and for each name the historical circumstances that have taken
place there. Basso came to realize this can all become very challenging due to language
barriers, he writes,

I foreseen that my failure to pronounce the stubborn Apache place name would be
interpreted by him as a lack of respect. And never had I suspected that using an Apache
place-name might be heard by those who used them as repeating verbatim—actually
quoting—the speech of the early ancestors.

(Basso 1999: 10)

Basso describes ‘place-names’ as a “universal tool of the historical imagination and in
some societies, if not the great majority, it is surely among the basic of all.” (5) The
Apache people associate places with events that have taken place in history. Basso
describes many of these place-names in his book and each of the stories tells a tale of
history and morality in connection with the environment. I found it extremely interesting
that no dates were attached to the stories. I believe this is because time frames take
away from the meaning of the story. Old narratives, in a sense, become less important
because we think of them as old and out-dated.

The Apache people gave places-names in order to inform people of there past, as well as to
show respect for the land in which they lived on for so many years. Charles Henry, Bassos
friends and Apache informant, describes his ancestors naming process, “this place may help
us survive. If we settle this country we must be able to speak about this place and
remember it clearly and well. We must give it a name.” (12)

The story behind the place-name ‘Snake Water’ is an exceptional example of how the
environment shaped the culture of the Apache people. Snakes water, now a barren piece of
bedrock, was once a place where Apache people came for water and the people were very
grateful that it was there. They gave offerings of thanks to the water and they said,
“this water is good, it is good that it is here for us.” (15) Because of reasons not
known, ‘Snake water’ dried up and this greatly distresses the Apache people. Charles
speculated that his ancestors were too greedy and wasteful with the water and that is why
it disappeared. Charles tells the story of his ancestors, “Our holy people must work on
this for us, they must help us make amends to Water. They must ask Water to take pity on
us.” (17)

This specific place-name is relevant in expressing the Apaches past relationship they once
had with water. It expresses the gratitude they had for water and at the same time taught
the lesson of always giving thanks, not being greedy or wasteful with the water in which
they were given.

Place-name are responsible for giving an identity to the Apache people. The story of
‘Juniper Tree Stands Alone People’ is an example of how Apache ancestors were connected to
the places in which they lived. Where the junipers trees grew long ago is the very place
where early Apache clans settled. It was a place where plenty of corn grew and sustained
then for many years. This shows that the naming process of the Apache people comes from
what they reaped from the environment and by naming it and remembering that name it shows
respect for it. Upon revisiting the ‘Juniper Tree Stands Alone’ area, Charles told
Basso, “Now they see their corn fields, there is so mush corn…they are excited and happy…
‘Juniper Tree Stands Alone’ has looked after us again.” (20) This narrative backs up
Bassos theory of a strong bond between the environment and the Apache culture. ‘Juniper
Tree Stands Alone’ played a significant role in their history and although it was never on
a conventional map, it remained extremely important to the Apache heritage.

In Apache culture, Basso theorizes that there is a connection between oral narratives and
the environment. He argues that story telling is a very powerful tool used by the Apache
people and it is used to “establish bonds between human beings and features of the
landscape.” (Cruikshank 1990: 54)

I am particularly interested in the place-name ‘Shades of Shit’, because it taught an
important lesson on ‘sharing’. Charles tells the story of how his ancestors once lived in
a place called ‘Shades of Shit’ and it was called this because the people who lived there
had a lot of corn. Instead of sharing their corn with their starving relatives, they
were greedy and kept it all to themselves. Until one day the starving relatives locked
their greedy family members into their own houses and they were not allowed to leave, not
even to defecate. (22-26) ‘Shades of Shit’ place-name outlines the simple moral of
sharing, especially sharing with the less fortunate.

The story behind the place-name ‘Course-Textured Rocks Lie Above In a Compact Cluster’ is
interesting from both a historical and moralistic perspective. It is about a man who
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