This article is over 5 years old and may contain outdated information.


Mapping traditional place names in Canada’s North

The staff of the Inuit Heritage Trust is racing across Canada’s North to document traditional Inuit place names before much of that knowledge passes on with the elders who hold it. Canadian Geographic sits down with lead researcher Lynn Peplinski.
  • Jun 30, 2013
  • 1,890 words
  • 8 minutes
Expand Image

Lynn Peplinski, traditional place names manager for Nunavut’s Inuit Heritage Trust, is racing across Canada’s North to document and map as many traditional Inuit place names as she can — before much of that important knowledge passes on with the elders who hold it. Canadian Geographic caught up with Peplinski in Iqaluit to talk about her work furthering the mandate of the IHT, which is to preserve, enrich and protect the Inuit heritage and identity embodied in Nunavut’s archeological sites, ethnographic resources and traditional place names.

Canadian Geographic: Can you explain what the Inuit Heritage Trust is?

Lynn Peplinski: The Inuit Heritage Trust is part of the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, the largest of such settlements in Canadian history. The only mention of traditional place names in the agreement is Article 33, which is part of what the IHT is responsible for.

CG: How did Inuit name these land features?

LP: Inuit don’t name geographical features for people, the way European explorers did. Out of the thousands of place names that we’ve recorded, maybe 0.1 per cent were named after a person. Inuit are descriptive as a matter of course: landforms and other features are named for the currents that occur there, the animals that inhabit the area, the odd shape of an island or a lake. Any place of any significance, like a landmark, will have a descriptive name.

People still sometimes travel to the places that their ancestors went to, and they use the place names that they got from their parents and their grandparents. So they still know that there should be an abundance of caribou, or seals, or fish in a certain area.

CG: Have the ways in which Inuit travel and use these names changed?

LP: It’s only been 50 years or less that people here have been growing up in settlements. In the urban centres like Iqaluit we now have street names, but even those are less than 10 years old.

So what you’re seeing now is normal for you, coming up from the South. You’re used to this kind of city or town life, but up until recently, “out there” was life. People lived where they could find food, so they’d stay in one place for a while, like in the spring where there’s good seal hunting, and they would become familiar with certain routes and the places all along the way.

CG: You spoke about Inuit using place names that were passed down orally, from their parents. Why is it so important to map this information?

LP: People didn’t need maps before, because they went out across the land for months at a time and knew the areas where they travelled and hunted. Now that people live in town, there’s nobody reminding you about that lake 120 miles from here. So we need the maps to preserve these names — an inventory of any place of any significance to Inuit.

CG: How do you go about collecting this information?

LP: Before we go into a community, we get in touch with the hamlet office, and let them know what we’re trying to do. And we find out if elders there are willing to share their knowledge of place names. Usually they’re very receptive, and they give us the names of elders in other areas, because they know that their own knowledge of the land reaches only so far.

It’s important to note that not every elder acts as a keeper of this information. It’s the same in our culture — not everyone is a historian. But some people make it their business to remember this stuff. They select themselves as keepers of this knowledge.

Sadly, as the years go by, there are fewer and fewer of these elders left.

CG: How much of the North have you completed?

LP: We have recorded more than 8,000 names and have covered most of Baffin Island, though we still need to finish a few communities. We also have maps of the Kitikmeot and Kivalliq regions, west of Baffin on the mainland. There’s really nowhere else in this country that has this volume of names.

When you see the maps that we’re making, with thousands of names dotted across the North, you have to imagine that they’re not just isolated dots; the Inuit had to get from place to place, so there are routes between all these places. The point of all of this is that it’s not an empty wasteland up here! This place is known by Inuit, and a lot of the knowledge is in the names.

CG: So what is in the names? What can the elders tell you about each of these places?

LP: When we sit down with them they give us the names, but they also tell us anything they can about the place. This is when it becomes such an incredible inventory. If you want to know where seabirds, caribou, wolves or landlocked char are — a lot of that information is in there, in these names. And other information, too: in Kimmirut (on the southern coast of Baffin Island’s Meta Incognita Peninsula) we found out, for instance, that Pigaarviit is “where you go to stay up late (to enjoy the long spring days).” Nuluujaak means “two islands that look like buttocks.”

Because so much of life here is winter, there are names for things like the cracks in the ice that appear every year, which are based on landforms and currents under the ice. They name these same recurring features. To navigate you need to know that they’re there, even if they aren’t fixed like other forms.

CG: How long has it taken you and your team to collect these 8,000 traditional names?

LP: I started working in south Baffin in 1993, when I was at the Science Institute of the Northwest Territories, but that was all Kimmirut and the Iqaluit area. We actually just submitted those names to the government of Nunavut, a full 20 years later. Sometimes, it seems, we get distracted because there are so many areas to go to, and this is such a vast land. The territory is almost 2,000,000 square kilometres.

CG: For Inuit who have never relied on maps before, do they find it difficult to interpret these graphic representations?

LP: This is something that always amazes me. Often, when we give a blank map of the surrounding areas to Inuit who are helping us, they just see it. They have no problem recognizing and identifying features on the map, going only from their recollections of the land and what their families have described to them in words or in songs — without otherwise having used maps. They’ll even correct you, explaining something like, “there should be a lake there, but it’s not on your map.”

CG: What sort of difficulties do you encounter as you travel around collecting these names?

LP: One problem is that while people may once have travelled through the blank areas left on some of our maps, those people are not alive anymore. And because hardly anyone travels there now, the names are lost.

Then there’s the fact that different dialects appear everywhere you go — east, west, up and down Baffin Island, over in Gjoa Haven. For projects like this that can be a nightmare.

CG: How do you make these names official?

LP: Once we’re as sure as we can be that the information that we have is perfect, we send it to the government of Nunavut, and it’s their job to make the names official.

We went to Pangnirtung about a year ago for a community meeting where we presented one of our completed maps. In that area, one of the first maps of this sort was made by the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas in 1883. But Inuit never used it! In 1984, Ludger Müller-Wille, a professor from McGill University, transcribed Boas’s work onto topographic sheets, went out to Pang and reviewed everything — and then it just sat there until 2002. That’s when we went there to review yet again, and we found that Boas had used the letters X and Y, which you don’t use in Inuktitut. We brought the language up to the standard and went over everything with elders. Those are the area maps that we sent to the Geographical Names Board of Canada, and hopefully within the next 10 years they’ll become official, more than 130 years after they were first recorded! (The Inuktitut terms that Franz Boas recorded in the 1800s are the same that are being used now, still passed down orally without change.)

CG: What are some of the uses of these maps, apart from the invaluable preservation of Inuit culture, language and geographic knowledge?

LP: If you are a researcher, this is a baseline of information about what is known about the Arctic. And I think that it’s a truly underutilized source of information.

That’s just one of the uses of these maps. If you’re Inuk, you already know that there are names out there, though not necessarily what they are. So if you’re interested in hunting, boating and travelling, you’re still going to want to know this information, so you know something about the place and you can tell other people where you’ve been.

Search and rescuers really need these maps too. The elders that we interview often make that point. Elders receiving emergency calls have been known to ask the person, “What did the land look like before you got into trouble?” and based on the person’s answers they’ve been able to bring people back. Now they encourage people to bring spot transmitters, but it still helps so much with communication between people here if they have a handle on these names.

CG: So understanding the land this way is important for survival?

LP: The elders talk about how the younger generation, because they often use GPS, will usually just give a coordinate. But GPS can’t tell you what these names can tell you, which is often what to avoid as well as what’s in the place. “There’s always open water here,” or “there are strong currents here” or “deep snow.” If you speak Inuktitut and you hear or read the names, you know something about that place.

CG: Do you have a favourite place or place name?

LP: We have one map, of a small part of Nunavut, Clearwater Fiord, which is in Cumberland Sound, the next big inlet heading north up Baffin Island, and in one small area there are 446 names. That means that it was a rich, rich place. Whalers from Europe came there for that reason, but the Inuit were there long before. There was beluga, some narwhal, fishing and caribou and seal hunting — it was very abundant.

One of our favourite places is in this area: millurialik, which means “throwing place.” There, centuries ago, people would throw rocks from the cliffs above to block beluga from escaping the small inlet. People tried that again recently and gave up. It turns out that it takes a lot of effort. But then people were hungry, and they did what they had to do to eat. This land was their life!


Are you passionate about Canadian geography?

You can support Canadian Geographic in 3 ways:

Related Content

Science & Tech

20 Canadian innovations you should know about

Celebrating Canadian Innovation Week 2023 by spotlighting the people and organizations designing a better future 

  • 3327 words
  • 14 minutes
Heinrich Scherer's 1702 chart of the North Pole

People & Culture

Why the North Pole matters: An important history of challenges and global fascination

In this essay, noted geologist and geophysicist Fred Roots explores the significance of the symbolic point at the top of the world. He submitted it to Canadian Geographic just before his death in October 2016 at age 93.

  • 5167 words
  • 21 minutes
Dundas street sign with stop light and stop sign

People & Culture

Renaming places: how Canada is reexamining the map

The history behind the Dundas name change and how Canadians are reckoning with place name changes across the country — from streets to provinces

  • 4574 words
  • 19 minutes


The naturalist and the wonderful, lovable, very bold jay

Canada jays thrive in the cold. The life’s work of one biologist gives us clues as to how they’ll fare in a hotter world. 

  • 3599 words
  • 15 minutes