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An Approach to Aboriginal Cultural Landscapes


ABORIGINAL WORLD VIEWS

Narratives and Place Names

How is knowledge about the land passed from person to person, and from generation to generation?

Traditional narratives record the locations of sacred sites and other places of importance. Knowledge of these places is passed from generation to generation through narratives, instructional travel, and place names. "Legends are from the land, and even though there were no maps, the stories made maps for the people". (cited in Hanks, 1996: 889)

Traditional knowledge relates contemporary Aboriginal cultures directly to these places. "The Sahtu Dene narratives create a mosaic of stories that envelop the cultural landscapes of Grizzly Bear Mountain and Scented Grass Hills. The web of 'myth and memory' spread beyond the mountains to cover the whole western end of Great Bear Lake, illustrating the complexity of the Sahtu Dene's landscape tradition". (HSMBC Minutes, November 1996)

Narratives also tell of journeys through landscapes while naming indicators to help travellers find their way. Stars, each with its own story, can guide at night. Guiding geographic features may be natural, such as headlands, fords, or trees, or they may be built by humans, such as inuksuit.

Boy listening to old man.
Elder Noah Piugattuk with his great grandson Adam Qanatsiaq, Igloolik, Nunavut
© Parks Canada / T.Pearce / H.13.01.06.14 (02), 1993

In addition to narratives, place names focus and sustain the traditional knowledge which is related to the land. Place names are key elements in stories passed from one generation to the next to enable them to continue the cultural activities of the group which has occupied an area over a long period of time. "Through narrative associated with a place, they reflect aspects of culture which imbue the location with meaning". (Andrews, 1990)

Recent field work on traditional place names and narratives in the North Slave Dogrib claim area, which has documented nearly 350 Dogrib place names, has shown that "[a]s part of a knowledge system, traditional place names serve as memory 'hooks' on which to hang the cultural fabric of a narrative tradition. In this way, physical geography ordered by place names is transformed into a social landscape where culture and topography are symbolically fused". (Andrews and Zoe, 1997; Andrews, 1990: 4) For both the Dene and the Inuit, some tales comprise mainly lists of places.

Wide river with cliffs in distance.
The Ramparts, Mackenzie River above Good Hope, Northwest Territories
© National Archives of Canada / PA 18975, 1922.

In recent times the return to Aboriginal place names, such as Nagwichoonjik for the Mackenzie River, serves to evoke the complex system of values attached to such places by Aboriginal cultures. The link between place, name, and cultural value is a world wide phenomenon among indigenous peoples.

 

Last Updated: 2008-10-17 To the top
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