More Information on Labrador Innu place names

The following gives more information about Innu place names including some rules about how they are constructed based on Innu grammar, history, and knowledge of the land. If you want more detailed information about Innu place names and grammar, you may wish to read the papers by José Mailhot (1974) and Peter Denny and José Mailhot (1976) listed in the Resources section of this website.

Innu place names

  • are highly descriptive of land and water.
  • contain complicated information about lakes and other water bodies such as how clear they are and what the land looks like around them.
  • relate to the geography of the northern forests by containing words that refer to rock in the form of mountains and eskers, water as lakes, rivers and rapids, land as earth, moss and bog, and living things as trees and plants.
  • are used by travellers to find their way through the territory and to describe and remember places along travel routes.
  • record Innu history and use of the land by giving names to places where people hunted, fished, and trapped, where they were born or buried, or even where humorous or romantic events took place.
  • bring together sciences dealing with the study of lakes and rivers (hydrography), rocks (geology), plants (botany, biology), animals (zoology, biology), land forms such as mountains and marshes (geography), place names (onomastics, toponymy, geography), language (linguistics), and culture (anthropology).

There are many kinds of Innu place names including those that

  • describe geographic features of the land and water (e.g. mountains, marshes, bays, rivers).
  • refer to Innu life on the land and activities that took place there (e.g. burial sites, birth places, fishing spots, personal events).
  • deal with other-than-human beings and the activities of Innu shamans.
  • refer to the distribution of plants and animals.

“Geographic features” refers to different parts of the land such as lakes, rivers, and mountains. Innu, Inuit, and European peoples have named many of these geographic features in Nitassinan over the years, and some of the names are very old. The geographic features named by Labrador Innu include lakes, rivers, river junctions, river branches, rapids, falls, bays, coves, inlets, basins, points, islands, mountains, knolls, summits, marshes, canyons, narrows, and rattles. In addition, various places where humans used the land in some way have also been named. These include portages, burial and birth sites, localities, quarries, harbours, trading posts, seasonal settlements, caches, crossings, and Indian reserves.

The vast majority of geographic features that have been named by Labrador Innu are lakes (283), followed by rivers (131), mountains (51), and islands (30).

Sometimes, Innu place names are paired in such a way as to tell us a little about how Innu people think about relationships among water bodies such as lakes, rivers, small rivers (brooks), and rapids. A place name for a lake will give its name to a second place connected to it, such as a river, or a third place, such as some rapids. For example, the lake Minai-nipi gives its name to a river flowing out of it called Minai-nipiu-shipu, as well as some rapids called Minai-nipiu-paushtiku. The lake Ashuapun gives its name to the river that flows out of it called Ashuapun-shipu. In both cases, the addition of the term -shipu speaks of a river flowing out of a lake at its headwaters. Sometimes, a name for a lake will also be used to name some other nearby geographic feature such as a mountain. Nekanakau-utshua (‘Sandy Shores Mountains’) is one example; it is named in reference to nearby lake Nekanakau.

Place names related to aueshishat (animals)

Over 160 place names recorded from Innu in Labrador are directly related to aueshishat (animals). Of these, over 50 are related to nameshat (fish). A couple of examples are Kauinipishit namesh (‘Dark Fish’) and Minai-nipi (‘Burbot Lake’). Thirty-four names are related to pineshishat (‘small birds’), pineuat (‘partridge’), shishipat (‘ducks and geese’), tshiashkuat (‘gulls’), mitshishuat (‘eagles’, ‘raptors’), muakuat (‘loons’), kakatshuat (‘ravens’), tshinashat (‘terns’), and uhuat (‘owls’). Some examples include Ushakapineu-mishkumi (‘Place For Ptarmigan Winter Lake’) and Kakatshu-utshishtun (‘Raven’s Nest’). Twenty-four names have something to do with atikuat (‘caribou’) such as Atiku-uapishkuss (‘Caribou White Mountain – small’) and Upinau-utshu (‘Old Male Caribou Mountain’). The remainder of the place names have something to do with other aueshishat (‘animals’) such as Atshikuat kataht (‘Where There Are Seals’), Maikan-nipi (‘Wolf Lake’), and Nutakuanan-shipu (‘Porcupine Hunting River’).

Place names related to individual Innu people

Over 50 places are named after Innu people, most of whom passed away many years ago. Naming lakes and other places after people helps us to remember them and the events that took place there. We know the family relations between most of these people and the Innu who are alive today, but there are some cases where the family relations with the named ancestors are no longer remembered.

Atika upishkutinam is a mountain named after Shushep Atika, the grandfather of Tuminik Pokue in Sheshatshiu and grandfather of Anishen (Katshinak) Rich in Natuashish. Manian unipim is the name of a lake where Manian, the mother of Shuashem Nui and Puniss Nuke passed away and was buried over 70 years ago. In the south, Pienshak-shipiss is named after an Innu man called Pienshak, also known as Peter Jack, who was born in 1901. His relatives in Sheshatshiu include Mishen Jack and Peter Jack and their children and grandchildren.

Unikush ushakameshim, which means ‘Unikush’s Place For Fish’, is an example of a personal place name where Elders do not remember how they are related to the person. Tshishkuetutsheunnu-minishtiku is another example. Tshishkuetutsheunnu is the name of a shaman who was chased by the cannibal Atshen and who escaped by hiding on an island (minishtiku) where he performed a shaking tent ceremony. No one remembers how they may be related to this person.

There are even a couple of places in Innu territory named after dogs, for example,Mashkutapish kanutikuet (‘Where Mashkutapish Chased Caribou’) and Tshainish kashuakuet (‘Where Tshainish Slid Down’).

Several place names point to events involving Innu people that took place there long ago. Mishta-Etuat kashashakuepitak (‘Where Mishta-Etuat Cracked the Ice by Running’), Kakushtatshinanut (‘Where People Were Frightened’), and Katshishtaputshikuanut (‘Where People Washed Their Faces’) are a few examples. Some place names also mark the burial locations of people, for example, Anissikutshaushkueu (the name of a woman), and Tshishennish kapimishinit (‘Where Tshishennish is Buried’).

Settlers, Inuit & traders

Close to 40 places are named after Inuit, settlers and traders whom the Innu had contact with over the years. An example of a place named after an Inuit person on the north coast of Labrador is Katshipunasht-shipu (‘Katshipunasht River’) where Katshinpunasht is the name given to an Inuit man, Natan Frieda from Hopedale, who had a house at the mouth of the river. Mishti-Shantiss (‘Mister Saunders’) is the name the Innu gave to a place where a settler named Freeman Saunders had a winter house. Mishti-Shuapi (‘Mister Swaffield’) is the name of a lake associated with a Hudson’s Bay Company trader by the name of William Ernst Swaffield. In the Lake Melville area, Pekiss (‘Baikies’) is a location named after the Baikie family and Tshakashue-matshiteuiau (‘Tshakashue’s Point’) is named after Hiram White from Mud Lake.

Other-than-human beings

More than a dozen places are named in reference to an other-than-human being that lives there or whom Innu encountered at some point in the past. Some examples are Mishtamishku-shipu (‘Giant Beaver River’), Kaminaushit upishkutinam (‘Hairy Creature’s Mountain’), Memekueshu-nipi (‘Cave Creature Lake’), and Manitupeku (‘Evil Creature Lake’).

Parts of animals

Only a handful of place names recorded by Labrador Innu are related to the parts of animals. Some examples include Umishtatai-nipi (‘Caribou Rumen Lake’), Atiku-uish (‘Caribou Mesentery’), and Kuekuatsheu-ushui (‘Wolverine Tail’).

Technology, hunting and fishing

An equally small number of place names relate to the tools, equipment and technology used by the Innu when they were living in nutshimit (the country). Examples include Mishkutui-nipi (‘Beaver Stretcher Lake’), Unaikan-shipiss (‘Deadfall Trap River – small’), Kassitakaikan (‘Square Cache Box’), and Kauashapakueshteti (‘Where Canvas Tents Are Visible From a Distance’). Some of the names are concerned with Innu hunting, fishing and gathering berries, for example, Utshashumekuat katshikakuatakaniht (‘Place Where Salmon Were Speared’), Katshinukapaut umenikan (‘Katshinukapaut’s Caribou Coral’), and Kamuminanut (‘Where People Eat Berries’).

How Innu place names are constructed

The Innu language (Innu-aimun) builds all kinds of complicated words using little bits of meaning that linguists label with technical words such as “prefix,” “initial,” “medial,” “final,” and “suffix.” Click here if you want to know about Innu grammar in greater detail. What is often expressed by a sentence in English or French may be expressed in a single word in Innu-aimun. This certainly applies to Innu place names, for example, Kameshtashtan, which means ‘Where it is All Blown Away’ and Kauashapakueshteti, meaning ‘Where Canvas Tents Are Visible From a Distance’.

Many Innu place names are made of two or more words that have been combined, for example, kaku + paushtiku= Kaku-paushtiku, meaning ‘Porcupine Rapids’ and ukaumau + nipi = Ukaumau-nipi, meaning ‘Mother Lake’. Many of these words, such as nipi, paushtiku, and shipu, are called “generics.” Examples of related generics in English are lake, rapid, and river, while in French these same generics are lac, rapide, and rivière.

Innu may indicate that a geographic feature is small by adding a “diminutive” ending -iss. Therefore, a small lake is nipi + -iss = nipiss, whereas a small river is shipu + -iss = shipiss. It should be noted that Innu ideas about small features such as nipiss and shipiss may not be the same as ideas held by non-Innu. In other words, a nipiss may not be identical to a “pond” (a small lake). For that reason, we have chosen to translate any feature that the Innu label “small” (e.g. through the use of the diminutive –iss) by placing “(small)” in the explanation field for each place name.

Here are some more complicated examples of how Innu place names are put together based on combinations of bits of meaning. The name Kanapateshekat (‘Mountain With a Cliff on One Side’) is derived from a verb napateshekau, meaning ‘It is a rocky cliff on one side’.

prefix initial medial final suffix
napate- shek- a- u
ka- napate- shek- a- t
that which is flat on one side rocky mountain verb final verb ending

Often, the first part of a place name may describe a characteristic of a geographic feature such as big, round, bad, beautiful, winding, long, or its colour. One example is Katshinukamat (‘Long Lake’), where the tshinu- part of the word means ‘long’. Another example is Uapashku-nipi (‘White Bear Lake’), where the uap- part of the word means ‘white’.

At the same time, the middle part of the place name refers to that part of the land that is being described and named. One example is Kauauiekamat (‘Round Lake’), where the -kam- part of the word means ‘lake’. Another example is Kauinipishekat (‘Black Rock’), where the -shek- part of the word means ‘rocky mountain’.

People from Sheshatshiu and Natuashish sometimes have different words for the same idea because they speak different dialects of Innu-aimun. For example, in Sheshatshiu many place names that refer to lakes have the word nipi in them, whereas the words natuashu or nipi are used in Natuashish. In Sheshatshiu, people say utshu for ‘mountain’ whereas the word in Natuashish is pishkutinau.