What's in a name? Learn about the Great Lakes through Indigenous languages | Great Lakes Guide

Environment and Education

What's in a name? Learn about the Great Lakes through Indigenous languages

Published February 26, 2019

When you spend time in the Great Lakes region, you are surrounded by traditional languages. So many of the lakes and rivers in this region are called by names that date back thousands of years. Many of our communities are named for features of the lakes, like harbours and navigation routes.

Words like “Ontario,” “Erie,” “Huron,” and “Michigan” are unique to this part of the world because they come from languages spoken by the region’s Indigenous peoples. Same with “Toronto,” “Oshawa,” “Mississauga,” “Ottawa” and many others.

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Graphic by Flavia Lopez

To know those words is to know the Great Lakes.

Within the Great Lakes region, the most commonly spoken language groups are Algonquian and Iroquoian. Algonquian can can be broken down into Ojibwe (Anishinaabe), Oji-Cree, and Cree (including Cree, Swampy Cree, Northern East Cree, and Moose Cree). Iroquoian can be broken down into Mohawk, Oneida, and Cayuga.

Here are a few common Great Lakes place names and their roots:

  • Lake Erie’s name is derived from “erielhonan,” which is Iroquoian for “long tail.”

  • Lake Huron was named after the Huron First Nations communities that inhabited the region (also called Wyandot or Wendat).

  • Lake Michigan is named after the Ojibwe word “mishigami” which means “large water” or “large lake.”

  • Lake Ontario’s name comes from the Iroquoian word “Oniatarí:io,” and means “lake of shining waters.”

  • The city of Mississauga was named after the Ojibwe word “Misi-zaagiing,” which means “large outlet” or “great river mouth.”

  • The name Toronto is derived from the Mohawk word “tkaronto,” which means “trees standing in water.” This name was derived from the large stakes that were driven into the water as fishing weirs by the Huron-Wendat people.

  • Oshawa is named after the Ojibwe term “aaz haway,” meaning “across” or “the crossing place.”

  • The city of Ottawa’s name is derived from the Algonquin word “adawe,” which means “to trade.”

Discover more Great Lakes place names

To learn more Great Lake place names, explore our map. If you click on a destination, you will also find the traditional territory and treaty information. You can also read more about why we acknowledge traditional territories and treaties.



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