Culture
Meagan Wohlberg

We Are T’satsąot’inę: Renaming Yellowknife

As more and more places revert to their original Dene titles, could the capital be next?

The Yellowknives Dene First Nation could have a new name before the end of 2016 — not just for itself, but for the city of Yellowknife as well.

The First Nation is in the process of working out its traditional names for the Yellowknife area and its Indigenous inhabitants, though Dettah Chief Edward Sangris says it’s too early to reveal what they are planning to call themselves yet.

Still, he says it’s important work that they’re doing, and part of a recognizable trend throughout Indigenous communities in the North, like Sambaa K’e (Trout Lake) and Deline (Fort Franklin), who are reclaiming their traditional names as part of the decolonization process. Yellowknife is just one of many names that members of the Indigenous community are increasingly calling into question; the Mackenzie River, Great Slave Lake, the Slave River, the many “Forts,” and especially the title of Northwest Territories itself are all suggested candidates for a name change.

“All of the lakes and place names here have been given by non-Aboriginals,” Sangris says of the Yellowknife area, giving examples like Joliffe Island and Great Slave Lake. “But we have had our own names since time immemorial. So we are in the process of translating and figuring that out, starting with our own First Nation’s name.”

Ndilo Chief Ernest Betsina says there have been a couple of meetings to discuss the name change, but that the decision rests with council and will hopefully be finalized before Christmas.

Though neither chief would offer up any hints as to their new moniker, there are a few examples in common usage already out there that are likely options for the title.

Here's a list of possible names we might see being used in a more official capacity by the Yellowknives Dene in the coming years.

Weledeh/Wiilideh: YKDFN’s name for the Yellowknife River literally means “fish river.” Broken down, “wèleh” refers to the fish known as coney, or inconnu, and “deh” means flowing water, or river. Interestingly, the Denesuline word for Yellowknife is Beghúledesche, also deriving from beghúle (coney/inconnu) and des (river), and means “place of fish with no teeth.”

The word Wiilideh is already used to refer to one of the Yellowknife political ridings, shared now with Tu Nedhe (the Denesuline word for Great Slave Lake), and the Weledeh Catholic School.

Somba K’e: Meaning “where the money is,” Somb’a K’e is the most commonly used Dene term for the city of Yellowknife, seen in the name of the downtown city park as well as many groups and businesses in town. The word is actually a Tlicho one, and refers to the city’s raison d’etre, which originated in gold mining and remained accurate as Yellowknife became the capital of the NWT and hub for diamond mining.

T’satsąot’inę: The traditional name for the Yellowknives Dene literally means metal or copper people, and is the reason they are also sometimes referred to as Red Knives people. The Yellowknives were historically known for the pots, knives and other tools they made from copper collected from throughout their territory, which traditionally stretches north to the Coppermine River.

According to YKDFN Elders, Alexander Mackenzie decided to name the river “Yellowknife” after what he thought the people camped at the mouth of the river were calling themselves, when they were likely showing him their copper knives instead.

Tinde’e: This Weledeh word for Great Slave Lake literally means “big lake.”