Reclaiming the Names: Decolonizing the Arctic, One Place Name at a Time

Why did Cape Dorset become Kinngait—and what new names are next? Learn about the reasons communities across Inuit Nunangat, Canada, and around the world are reclaiming their traditional place names. Wrapping your mind (and mouth) around these old names made new might not be as tricky as you think.
Street signs uqsuqtuuq gjoa haven

© Mark Edward Harris

Street signs in Uqsuqtuuq (Gjoa Haven), Nunavut; a qamutik is an Inuit sled for travelling on snow and ice.

In December 2019, one of Adventure Canada’s best loved ports-of-call adopted a new name. Or rather, it took back its old name. Cape Dorset, the Nunavut community known as the global epicentre of Inuit art, is now officially Kinngait, meaning “where the hills are.”

In reclaiming its Inuktitut name, Kinngait is part of a movement. In recent decades, across the Arctic, hundreds of places have ditched their European monikers and embraced their Indigenous names. Looked at one way, it’s just common sense. If the local folks all use a certain name, why not make it official? But it’s also a process of cultural revival—what’s been called toponymic decolonization.

Toponymic Decolonization

This process has been a long time coming. Ever since English pirate Martin Frobisher sailed into Tasiujarjuaq (a.k.a. Frobisher Bay) nearly 450 years ago, Europeans have littered the Arctic with ill-fitting toponyms. The British Admiralty, of course, festooned every peak and passage with homages to the aristocracy—Prince Regent Inlet, Viscount Melville Sound, Duke of York Archipelago, and so forth. Scandinavians followed suit with King Christian Island and Queen Maud Gulf.

Other explorers were hardly any better. There’s not one but two features in Arctic Canada named for brewing companies that sponsored expeditions: the Ringnes Islands, honouring beer merchants, and Boothia Peninsula, for a gin distiller. Jenny Lind Island is a tribute to a Swedish opera singer. Air Force Island was named by—you guessed it—the air force. Even the mighty Deh Cho, the prime waterway of the Dene people, was once called the River of Disappointment, because explorer Alexander Mackenzie was bummed it didn’t go to Asia.

Northeast baffin island

© Dennis Minty

Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin Island), Nunavut

Of course, for a long time, what outsiders called these places didn’t directly affect the locals living there. They had their own place names, which highlighted what mattered to them: physical features (such as Sikuujaq, “very flat, like sea ice”), animal habits (Qaqulluit, “fulmars nest here”), practical uses (Ukialliviminiq, “fall/winter camping spot”), or noteworthy events (to this day, Frobisher’s landing place is known as Kodlunarn, “white man’s island”).

Eventually, however, with the increasing effects of colonization, European toponyms came to seem intrusive, even oppressive. Whether by accident or on purpose, the signs erected by government agents and the maps taped up in school classrooms functioned as propaganda. By supplanting Indigenous place names, they undercut peoples’ sense of themselves and diminished their relationship to their land. Toponymic decolonization aims to take that power back.

Examples from Canada and Around the World

Such decolonization is hardly unique to the Arctic. Upon independence, the African colony of Rhodesia, named for imperialist Cecil Rhodes, became Zimbabwe. Before that, newly independent Norway dumped Christiania, which honoured the Danish king, in favour of a Norse name, Oslo. And even earlier, during the American Revolution, numerous places—like New York’s Charlotte County, after the daughter of King George—were renamed for the US general and eventual president, George Washington.

In Arctic Canada, perhaps the first place to decolonize its name was Port Brabant, at the mouth of Mackenzie’s supposedly disappointing river. In 1950 that community became Tuktoyaktuk (“looks like a caribou”).

In 1979, when Kalaallit Nunaat (a.k.a. Greenland) adopted home rule, most of its towns dropped their Danish names. The capital, Godthåb, became Nuuk (“the cape”), Holsteinsborg changed to Sisimiut (“the fox-den people”), and Jakobshavn adopted the far more appropriate Ilulissat (“icebergs”).

Colourful houses sisimiut

© Dennis Minty

The Danish name Holsteinsborg was changed to the Greenlandic Sisimiut ("the fox den people") in 1979.

A similar process occurred the next year in Nunavik, the Inuit homeland of Québec. There, many towns had not one but two colonial names, the first English and the second French. For example, the place Anglos called George River was renamed Port Nouveau Québec by Québécois sovereigntists. “Not so fast,” said local Inuit. In 1980 it became Kangiqsualujjuaq, “very large bay.”

Elsewhere in the Arctic, renaming has been more gradual. Since 1987, approximately half of the twenty-five communities in Nunavut have switched to local names. So why the slow process?

Challenges to Renaming Places

Well, first, when it comes to renaming, not everyone is on board. Some see replacing colonial toponyms as a distraction, pouring old wine into new bottles. Recall Shakespeare’s words: “What’s in a name?/ That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.” Also, renaming is fraught with hazards. Some efforts have been hijacked. In 1996, before a referendum to rename Canada’s Northwest Territories, pranksters rallied around the name Bob. The vote was scrubbed.

Then there’s the problem of getting people who are resistant to or confused by the new names on board. In 2011, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society critiqued a new Nunavik park, Ulittaniujalik, as “hard to pronounce, or even memorize for people who are unfamiliar with Inuktitut.” (But the park’s French name was somehow fine, despite being much longer: le Parc National des Monts-Pyramides). Meanwhile, folks unfamiliar with the language often misspell Nunavut’s capital, Iqaluit, as Iqualuit. Linguist Mick Mallon once publicly warned, “if you stick an English u after the q, you change the word’s whole structure… It means the excrement that remains attached … before you wipe.”

Print makers tools in kinngait cape dorset

© Lee Narraway

Printmaking is an integral part of Kinngait (Cape Dorset), Nunavut's artistic economy.

There’s also branding to consider. For years, the aforementioned Kinngait balked at abandoning Cape Dorset, fearing it would impair the marketing of their art, especially the famous annual Cape Dorset Print Collection. And even when they decided to hold a name-change plebiscite in December 2019, the replacement name wasn’t obvious. In the vote, a large minority—twenty-six per cent—supported not Kinngait but Sikusiilaq, referring to a nearby area of open water.

Finally, there’s the question of who should be in control of renaming. In 2002, employees of the City of Iqaluit, presumably possessing limited knowledge of Inuktitut, began labelling local streets. The results were alternately banal—Qajak (“kayak”) Lane, Kamik (“slippers”) Drive, Mukluk (“boots”) Street—or, even worse, ridiculous.

“Who wants to live on Igunaq Street?” protested Nunavut’s then-premier, Paul Okalik. Igunaq, of course, means "fermented walrus meat."

Stop sign kinngait cape dorset

© Lee Narraway

Bilingual street signs are common throughout Nunavut.

An Ongoing Process

Despite such challenges, the toponyms of the Arctic are sure to continue to change. And it’s not just community names and local features that may be reclaimed. Some are pushing for the big stuff: for Baffin Island to officially become Qikiqtaaluk, or for Great Slave Lake to be Tu’cho. Mary Simon, the Governor General of Canada and the former president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, has even suggested the Northwest Passage be given an Inuktitut name—perhaps Saniruti Imanga, “the edge of the water.” Decolonizing the name of the passage, she suggested, would strengthen Canadian sovereignty over that contested waterway, while also respecting Inuit occupancy.

At Adventure Canada, we strive to use the proper place names, from Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), Nunavut to Miawpukek (Conne River), Newfoundland and Labrador. Throughout our literature, and as much as possible on our expeditions, you'll notice that we try to first use the local or community-chosen name, then the imposed name. In this manner we strive to decolonize ourselves, and to grow as individuals and as a company. We hope you’ll join us in this endeavour. Nakurmiik—thank you!

About the Author

Aaron Spitzer

Aaron Spitzer

Historian, Political Scientist, Journalist

For more than twenty years, Aaron has obsessively explored, studied, documented—and yammered about—the world’s polar places.

For a decade he ran Up Here, the journal of Canada’s north, which in 2010 was named the country’s best magazine. Before that, Aaron edited Canada’s northernmost paper (Nunatsiaq News), the world’s southernmost paper (Antarctic Sun), and the highest-circulation paper in the Alaskan “Bush” (Tundra Drums).

Aaron recently left Arctic journalism for Arctic academia. He earned a master’s degree in Northern Studies at the University of Alaska in 2015, and is now working on his Ph.D. at the University of Bergen, Norway, where he examines the opportunities and challenges of Indigenous governance in the circumpolar world.