What’s in a name? Language itself is, in a way, a living, evolving thing. It provides a direct line to our ancestors, to those that came before us. Language is a living relic, connecting us to our shared history.
The Great Lakes are also living entities, changing with the times and the people that inhabit their shores. The Great Lakes region is filled with names that connect us to the people that have lived here for centuries and a land that has existed for millenia.
The names of many parks, rivers, and cities are unique to the Great Lakes, originating from languages spoken by local Indigenous peoples. To know these names is to connect to the Great Lakes.
Discover the roots of some notable Great Lake place names:
- The famous Niagara falls is a household name. The thunderous waters are known globally as one of the 7 must-see natural wonders of the world. But what you may not know is that its name has Indigenous origins. “Niagara” is believed to be an anglicized version of the Iroquoian word Onguiaahra, meaning “The Strait”. Other theories suggest that the name comes from the local Indigenous group, the Niagagarega people.
- Moving north, we have Kakabeka Falls. The name of this “Niagara of the North” also has Indigenous origins. The local Ojibwe people referred to the falls as gakaabikaa, meaning “thundering waters” or “water falling over cliff”.
- Wasaga Beach Provincial Park is named after the Nottawasaga River. The name of this popular summer destination has Algonquin origins. Nottawasaga is derived from the Algonquin words for "Iroquois" and "river outlet".
- Near Lake Superior you’ll find Missinaibi Provincial Park. Missinaibi comes from the Cree word meaning “pictured waters”. This name is thought to refer to the pictographs that can be seen on rocks along the riverbanks. These impressive rock structures are of great significance to Indigenous peoples who used the rocks as a canvas, painting images of people, animals, and legendary creatures.
Can you find any place names with Indigenous origins? Explore our map! If you click on a destination, you will also find information about the traditional territory and treaty. You can read more about why we acknowledge traditional territories and treaties.
Learn how the Great Lakes got their names in the first article of this series. Stay tuned for the next “Ideas” piece to learn more about Indigenous place names and their significance in the Great Lakes region.
*Due to differences in regional dialects, spellings of traditional names may vary.