Traditional Gwich’in Place Names


Old becomes new

What was old is new again for the Gwich’in of the Northwest Territories. On June 21, 2013 the Government of the Northwest Territories officially recognised over 400 traditional Gwich’in place names reflecting their land use across the Gwich’in Settlement Area of the NWT. Through the efforts of the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute working closely with Gwich’in Elders between 1992 and 2012, the names of various geographic features were identified and registered with the NWT Cultural Places Program. In 2013, an exhibit was prepared and launched at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre to highlight this historic step in the evolution of NWT cultural heritage and geographical information. For more information, please read the FAQ, survey the Place Names map prepared by the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute, and browse the tables which catalogue the place names along with their geographical coordinates and brief descriptions in Gwich’in.

  • Vihtr’ii Njik

    Translation: “Flint-river” (Photo credit: Jean-Luc Pilon, Canadian Museum of Civilization)

  • Srehtadhadląįi

    Translation: “Water separates” (Photo credit: Ingrid Kritsch, GSCI, 1996)

  • Deetrìn’ ehchįį K’ìt

    Translation: “Crow’s/Raven’s bed-place” (Photo credit: Itai Katz, 2007)

  • Nataiinlaii

    Translation: “Water flowing from all directions” (Photo credit: Mélanie Fafard, GSCI, 2002)

  • Knut Lang’s Place

    One of Knut Lang’s store houses, 1954 (Photo credit: NWT Archives/Curtis Merrill/N-1992-192: 0038)

  • Shìłdii

    Translation: “Sitting down or sitting in fear” (Photo credit: Sarah Jerome, GSCI, 1996)

The Project

The Place Names Project

During the 19th and 20th centuries many traditional place names fell into disuse or were replaced by colonial names for rivers, lakes, mountains and settlements. Through the efforts of the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute working closely with Gwich’in Elders between 1992 and 2012, these names have been repatriated to their rightful place. Typical of an oral culture, Gwich’in place names are linked to the lives and stories of those who use the land and describe what is important about a location. The origin of place names can be inspired by the following:

  • Geographical characteristics
  • Resources
  • People
  • Historical events
  • Legend sites
  • Sacred places

Through interviews with elders and land users in the Gwich’in communities of Inuvik, Aklavik, Tsiigehtchic and Fort McPherson, researchers have captured not only the traditional names of places but their meanings and associated stories. The Gwich’in place names project has recorded a large body of knowledge over the past 20 years, an important step in the ongoing process of Gwich’in culture and language revitalization.

  • Danny Andre explaining to Alestine Andre about named places and his travels in the area of his family’s camp at Tr’ineht’ieet’iee which is located on the Mackenzie River. (Photo credit: Ingrid Kritsch, GSCI)

  • Hyacinthe Andre telling a story to his daughter Alestine Andre at a major winter fish lake called Nihtavan Diniinlee up Tsiigehnjik (the Arctic Red River). (Photo credit: Ingrid Kritsch, GSCI)

  • Neil Colin describing named places to Ingrid Kritsch, William Teya and Eunice Mitchell (l-r) while camped at Gyuu Dazhoo Njik (Snake River) up the Peel River. (Photo credit: Sarah Jerome, GSCI)


Geographical and Community Place Names Q & A

What is the significance of traditional geographical names?

Traditional geographical names mark our long historical connection with the cultural landscape. They preserve ancient aspects of language no longer used in daily speech, they teach us about people and events that have marked our cultural development, and they record our knowledge about the land by marking places where important subsistence resources can be found.

How are place names changed in the Northwest Territories?

Official geographical and community names are managed by the Government of the Northwest Territories in partnership with land claims organizations and the Geographical Names Board of Canada, of which the NWT is a member. Name change proposals should be submitted to the Cultural Places Program by email at, or by calling the Cultural Places Officer at 867-873-7368.

What other significant name changes have been made?

Over the years, many community names have been changed, including Ulukhaktok (formerly Holman), Tsiigehtchic (formerly Arctic Red River), Délı̨ne (formerly Fort Franklin), Tulita (formerly Fort Norman), Behchokǫ̀ (formerly Rae), Whatı̀ (formerly Lac La Martre), Wekweètı̀ (formerly Snare Lake), Gamètı̀ (formerly Rae Lake), and Łutselk’e (formerly Snowdrift). For more information on official community names please download the official guide. In 2006, 306 Inuinnaqtun and Inuvialuktun geographical names were changed in the Ulukhaktok area. For more information on this project, please see the NWT Place Name Gazetteer. Please visit this site again in the coming weeks as the gazetteer will be updated to include the new Gwich’in place names.

How soon will we see these new names on maps?

Official place names of the Northwest Territories are the ones that you see on topographic maps. Part of the approval process requires that GNWT notify Natural Resources Canada, the federal department responsible for making NWT topographic maps, as to the name changes. The new place names will appear on topographic maps as each sheet comes up for renewal within the federal system, a process that may take many months. Over the coming months, NRCan will also update the national geographic names database that is available online. Other online mapping services, such as Google Maps, Google Earth, MapQuest, and Bing Maps use the national database as a source of place name information so, eventually, the names will appear on these services, too.

What do I need to submit when interested in changing a place name?

Please see this short set of instructions for further information.

What if we want to change our community’s name?

Please see this short set of instructions for further information. To see a map of NWT community names please see here.


Gwich’in Place Names Map

The map to the right was designed by the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute and MDT Communications to highlight Gwich’in place names. The map includes both the 414 newly recognized traditional names and local unofficial names for places and geographic features. The viewing tool allows you to zoom in and out of the map as well as open it full screen in Chrome or Firefox. map-gwichin-inset

The Gwich’in Settlement Area in Relation to Canada


Six Special Places

As part of a temporary exhibit at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, six special places were selected to illustrate the work of the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute in researching these names. Select each one from the gallery below:

New Table

Gwich’in Place Name Tables

The following three tables list the 414 traditional Gwich’in geographic names that have been newly recognized in the Gwich’in Settlement Area. The first table lists the newly recognized names, the second table lists traditional names that have replaced the previous official names, and the third lists places where the original official name has been retained alongside the new name. Each of the tables are searchable and sortable. The placemark link transmits the location coordinates to a variety of online mapping services.

Newly Notified Gwich’in Place Names

[table id=9 /]

Replacement Table

Name Replacements

[table id=10 /]

Multiple Table

Places with Multiple Names

[table id=11 /]