When place names honoured the land

'To us, the rivers, mountains and other parts of the natural world are not just dirt, rocks and trees without life; they breathe, they feel and they speak. These places are living entities and the names we give them reflect the spirit of the land.'

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Both Sinixt and Yaqan Nukiy (Lower Kootenay Indian Band of the Ktunaxa Nation) used the sturgeon-nosed canoe to travel regional rivers and lakes. Kootenay Lake Archives, Kaslo, BC, 988.040.0724.
This article first appeared in print in the December 2019 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. Illustration by Sonia Garcia/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

This article first appeared in print in the December 2019 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.

By Shelly Boyd and Laura Stovel

Since time immemorial our people lived on this river and amongst these mountains. Two hundred years ago the French and English languages came to this land but for thousands of years our Sn̓ʕay̓čkstx (Sinixt) language, N̓səl̓xcin, echoed through this valley. The names that we gave places honoured the land and waterways for what they gave, what they did, and how they helped us. Names reflected the food, medicine, animals, dangers, spirits –even the monsters– in the area. Some place names also reflect Coyote stories (captikʷł), showing where Coyote, who brought salmon up the Columbia, left his mark.
To us, the rivers, mountains and other parts of the natural world are not just dirt, rocks and trees without life; they breathe, they feel and they speak. These places are living entities and the names we give them reflect the spirit of the land.

Shelly Boyd releases a baby sturgeon at Shelter Bay.

After the settlers arrived, when it became impossible to stay on this land, we felt a great emptiness, but we also believe the land feels this same emptiness. To us, the land is alive and it misses the rhythm and sound of our language. It gets lonely for the names that it was given long before English was even uttered on its grounds. Can you imagine no one speaking your name any longer?

Most places around Revelstoke are now named after important people. Naming honoured or recognized individuals. In this article, I ask that you look in a different way at the land. Today I ask that you also see there is a difference between honouring a person (no matter how great) in a place name as opposed to honouring the land itself. Today I ask you to see how the world might be different, how climate change might be affected, how land management might be affected if we honoured the earth as much as we honour human life.

The Sn̓ʕay̓čkstx (Sinixt) and the Secwépemc were the main Indigenous people who regularly lived and spent time in the Revelstoke area. Both have distinct, though sometimes similar, names for important places throughout the region. These names have been passed down through the generations. Some were shared with anthropologists; others are kept within the culture. Undoubtedly, some names have been lost.

Detail of an illustration that appeared in the December 2019 issue with this story. Illustration: Sonia Garcia/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

Because of the traumatic experience of colonialism, during which sharing knowledge backfired on the original peoples, Indigenous peoples are careful when, and with whom, they share information. This article describes Sinixt place names and recognizes that Secwépemc people also named significant places in the area.

1. Sn̓x̌ʷn̓tkʷítkʷ

Columbia River, pronounced sin-when-tu-queet-qu, meaning ‘swift river’.

The Sinixt were skillful canoe people, noted for their sturgeon-nosed canoes. Sn̓x̌ʷn̓tkʷítkʷ was their main highway. The Sinixt did not use horses until well after contact with Europeans so the riverways were their main way of getting around.

2. Skxikn̓tn

Village at the Big Eddy, pronounced sku-hee-kin-tin.

Skxikn̓tn was located near the confluence of Tonkawatla Creek and the Columbia River in what is now the Big Eddy. This northernmost Sinixt village was a trading place with eastern Secwepemc. In the autumn, the village grew in size as Sinixt from further south and Secwepemc met to fish, hunt, gather berries and trade before heading home for the winter. Some Secwepemc may have intermarried with this band and stayed. Knowledgekeeper Nancy Wynecoop said that before the 1830s, the Sinixt began to move south. This was possibly because of smallpox epidemics that greatly reduced the population. When fur trader Gabriel Franchère passed by in May 1814, he met women “spinning the coarse wool of the mountain sheep [mountain goats]: they had blankets or mantles, woven or platted, of the same material, with a heavy fringe all round.”

3. Sl̓xʷʔitkʷ

Illecillewaet River, pronounced sill-wha-eet-kwe, meaning ‘big water’.

4. Qʷspíc̓aʔ

Village at Arrowhead, pronounced qus-peetsu, meaning ‘buffalo’ or ‘buffalo hide’.

This village, on the east bank where the Columbia River flows into Upper Arrow Lake, was mentioned several times by fur traders. In October 1823, Hudson Bay Company clerk John Work described cedar- and tule-mat-covered lodges at this site, one of which held “considerable quantities of dried salmon… They had a number of small dogs. Some beaver skins were traded from them, also a few dried salmon & a little dried meat, some very good nuts were also got from them.”

The head of Upper Arrow Lake was so busy with Sinixt that the Hudson Bay Company planned to build a fur trade post at Qʷspíc̓aʔ and sent a post master and his wife to supervise. However, a terrible accident upriver in 1838, that took the lives of 12 travellers, including five children, may have led the company to abandon plans for the post.

5. Ńk̓m̓aplqs

Beaton/Incomappleux, pronounced in-ku-mappel-ucks, meaning ‘head of the lake’.

According to Nancy Wynecoop, this was the “earliest settlement” in the oral history of her family.

6. Sn̓p̓ƛ̓mip

North end of Trout Lake, pronounced sin-puckl-meep, meaning ‘end of the pass’.

7. Kwəsxnaqs

Pronounced ka-wuss-ha-knocks and meaning ‘long point’.

8. Ńqʷusp

Nakusp, pronounced in-quoosp, meaning ‘cinched,’ ‘gathered in’.

9. Słu̓ʔqin

Slocan River, pronounced slthoo-cain, meaning ‘speared in the head,’ ‘speared on top’.

10. Ńmiml̓tn

Whatshan Lake, pronounced in-meemle-tin, meaning ‘place of white fish’.

Shelly Boyd is the Arrow Lakes (Sinixt) Facilitator for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. Laura Stovel is a Revelstoke-based writer and historian. With thanks to Chris Parkin and Graham Wiley-Comacho of the Salish School of Spokane for help with place names and pronunciations.

What’s in a place name?

Revelstoke. Selkirk Mountains. Downie Creek. Pingston Lake. Mounts Begbie, Mackenzie, Macpherson and Sproat. These were all named after men of English or Scottish ancestry who travelled through or spent time in this region in the 1800s or, more often, men who officials wanted to honour.

Mount Begbie was named after a prominent frontier judge who likely only visited Revelstoke once, in June 1885. Revelstoke itself was named after British railway financier, Edward Baring, Lord Revelstoke. The Selkirk mountain range is named after Thomas Douglas, the 5th Earl of Selkirk, who famously settled Scottish farmers in the Red River area of Manitoba which led to conflicts with the nascent Métis nation. A.L. Pingston was a steamboat captain. Mount Mackenzie was named after Canada’s second prime minister, Alexander Mackenzie (1873-78). Mount Macpherson was given the name of David Macpherson, a Minister of the Interior in the Canadian government (1883-85). Gilbert Malcolm Sproat was a stipendiary magistrate, gold commissioner and government agent in the first years of Revelstoke’s existence.

Mounts McCrae and English were named after RCAF Pilot Officer Donald McCrae and Sergeant George Melville English, local men who died fighting in World War II.


Shelly Boyd is the Arrow Lakes (Sinixt) Facilitator for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. Laura Stovel is a Revelstoke-based writer and historian. With thanks to Chris Parkin and Graham Wiley-Comacho of the Salish School of Spokane for help with place names and pronunciations.


Want to learn more? See this story on author Laura Stovel’s new book, Swift River, which was released in December 2019.

Swift River courses through regional history