A map to identify the names of Arctic Indigenous places | Polarjournal
Pond Inlet, from its Inuit name ᒥᑦᑎᒪᑕᓕᒃ (Mittimatalik) translates as “landing place”. Its original name is a reference to a rock from which gulls came and went when fishing. The place was renamed in 1818 by the Scottish explorer John Ross in honor of John Pond, an English astronomer. Image: Michael Wenger

Mostly used in social sciences, toponymy is a tool that can prove useful to scientists working in the Arctic as well as to other Indigenous communities. A recently published article surveys the projects that account for Inuit place names in Canada and makes them accessible via an interactive online map.

Used for a long time in Anthropology and Archaeology, toponymy could almost pass for an insider secret. Although numerous studies document and report on Inuit place names, they remain difficult to access or are sometimes not referenced at all. As a direct consequence of this lack of visibility, toponymy rarely goes beyond its own field or the broader field of social sciences. However, knowing the etymology of a place name means knowing its origin, its meaning and its history. A source of information as useful to science in general, as well as to Indigenous Arctic communities or to the political, legal and cultural worlds.

Two researchers from the University of Calgary’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, along with an independent Canadian researcher, have set themselves the task of cataloguing studies documenting Inuit place names and making them accessible via an interactive online map. They published their findings last week in the journal Polar Science.  The interactive map is also available online.

Toponymy is a discipline that studies place names and their etymology. Each name found in the Arctic, whether Inuit-sounding or not, has its own origin and its own history as shown on this map of Nunavut. Map: GIS Geography

As the authors note, while place names are important to academia and the communities involved, they are also linked to historical or cultural information: “Traditional aboriginal place names are linguistically and culturally significant because they are imbued with spatial, temporal and cultural meanings, including knowledge that is meant to be transmitted with the name, such as culturally significant stories, songs and hunting ground”, says M. Cecilia Porter, PhD student in Arctic Anthropology and Archaeology and lead author of the article.

As they include visual and auditory images, metaphorical references, indications of seasonal tours, place names can reflect environmental cues and provide evidence of changing environmental conditions over time or simply put, to be a source of climate change data for scientists.

Yet indigenous place names are rarely used in Arctic scientific publications, in contrast to names derived from colonial heritage. “There is a need to develop the capacity of Arctic science to approach Inuit names not only as a substitute for colonial names, but as landmarks in ontological, historical and ecological frameworks,” the authors note. Such an approach would also legitimize the history and presence of the Inuit, while delegitimizing the myth of Terra Nullus.

It’s also a way of responding to growing demands for recognition of the expertise of Indigenous peoples in Arctic management.

Link to the study : M. Cecilia Porter, Alyssa Parker, Matthew Walls, Indigenous place names in arctic Canada: A publicly accessible inventory of projects, Polar Science,2023, 101002, ISSN 1873-9652, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polar.2023.101002.

The interactive map is available here.

Mirjana Binggeli, PolarJournal

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