Calgary's Mewata Village, Siksika Trail & Makhabn River?

Editor’s Note: Regular visitors to the Everyday Tourist website will know we are keen to celebrate Calgary’s unique history and sense of place within the context of the larger world we share.  We love to do pieces on Calgary’s history and pleased to publish guest editorials from time to time that provide a fresh perspective on our city.  Recently, the idea of being more creative with our street names has struck a cord with our readers, with two submissions for guest blogs.

Celebrating the history of the First Nations 

It may be because I spent two summers living on the prairie north of Rosemary, Alberta. We lived in a 20-foot trailer and my job in the summer of 1975 was to break up 960-acres of prairie sod. I went over every inch of this land three times with my Massey Fergusson tractor and 22-foot cultivator. The following year, we planted our first crop of wheat and canola and irrigated it with water from the creek.

I could smell the sage and sweet grass growing along the Matsawin Creek, which flowed through our land. The deer visited in the morning and the evening. The coyotes could sometimes be seen during the day but most often heard at night. I watched the eagles hunt for rabbits and gophers. Occasionally, a skittish herd of antelope would warily circle our property. The wind was ever present as was a great big sky.

Reconnecting & Celebrating The Past

It didn’t occur to me until much later that my experience of prairie was similar to those who hunted on this land hundreds or even thousands of years earlier. I was living in the territory of the Siksika people, whose reserve is now 40 miles to the west. I never thought about the previous owners at the time. We were farmers intent on getting our land ready for our crops.

Fast-forward to today and I feel a strong need to reconnect not only to the recent past, but the ancient one of the First Nations. I want to honour their wisdom, their vigour and their stewardship of this land.

It has taken me awhile to appreciate the importance of our relationship with the First Nations people who lived here long before we came along to lay claim to the land and shape it to suit our purposes.

I recently attended the screening of “Elder in the Making” (elderinthemaking.com). This is a moving documentary about a Chinese newcomer to Canada, Chris Hsiung, and a young Blackfoot man, Cowboy SmithX, and it tells the history of the land occupied by the Blackfoot tribes of Southern Alberta.

As a Chinese immigrant, the filmmaker had no knowledge of the people who lived on this land for thousands of year. Hsiung did note we use various First Nation names for our highways, but he didn't know the history or significance of these names. I doubt he is alone in this. For a long time, Calgary has named our major thoroughfares using the English names of famous Aboriginal leaders such as Crowfoot or the First Nation's name like Sarcee, even though T’suu Tina’ is the proper term.

Weasel Calf (name given to him by settlers) and his wife.

Better Process

The City of Calgary has recently proposed a revision of its naming policy. If approved, the policy will require aboriginal names to be used on all freeways and expressways constructed in Calgary. While a change in policy is welcomed, I suggest that further discussion is needed. There may be occasions when a non-Aboriginal name is preferred for an expressway (e.g. Memorial Drive).  We may wish to honour someone whose name and reputation stands the test of time (e.g. Peter Lougheed).  

We need to include First Nations elders in the naming and blessing of expressways or “trails”. A participatory approach has been adopted throughout New Zealand resulting in the extensive use of Maori place names. Honouring First Nations people with appropriate names for places and “trails” might lead to other efforts to include and honour the Treaty 7 peoples and the special places where they lived, worked, and played.   

The policy should also allow for the renaming of existing expressways. For example, Blackfoot Trail could add “Siksika Trail,” or simply become Siksika Trail.  Sarcee Trail could become "T’suu Tina Trail".   

Bow River (Makhabn River) looking west with Prince's Island and Eau Claire lumber mill in the distance.  This photo is from the current exhibition at the Lougheed House. 

Better Context

Maybe we can do better by providing the appropriate First Nations name to a particular place. Do we begin to use the Siksika word “Makhabn also spelt Manachban” which means “river where bow reeds grow” as an alternative name for the Bow River (it is kinda of dumb to have both a Bow and Elbow River)?  Mokintsis is the First Nation name for the Elbow River, it means, “elbow” and is based on the sharp elbow-like turn it makes at Stampede Park before entering the Makahabn River (whoops) Bow River. 

The confluence of the Bow and the Elbow Rivers might be called Ako-katssinn (Siksika for a place where all come to camp) to celebrate its earliest human occupation alongside the historic Fort Calgary site. Ako-katssinn would be a great name for the new pedestrian bridge at the confluence.

We already use some First Nation language, but not in the right context. For example Mewata Armoury serves a military use, yet “mewata” means “to be happy, pleasant place or be joyful.” Similarly, “paskapoo” means blindman and I am not sure what that has to do with sandstone and “shaganappi” means “raw hide” which makes no sense to how we use it today.

Last word

The fact we have retained the term “trails” rather than using the term freeways or numbered highways for our major roads (as is the case for most cities), is exactly what I am talking about.  It may seem like a small token of appreciation for the past, but it is part of what makes Calgary unique and proper names can bring new context and vitality to a place. 

Maybe we could start by renaming West Village, Mewata Village – who wouldn’t want to live work and play in “a happy, pleasant, joyful place?” 

A few days after this blog was posted I found this tweet announcing the City of Edmonton has renamed one of its streets using an authentic Enoch Cree Nation name.  This is what I am talking about 

About Lawrence Braul

Lawrence currently works as the CEO of Trinity Place Foundation of Alberta. He was born and raised in Calgary. He believes the old adage, "You can take the boy out of the prairie, but you can't take the prairie out of the boy."

If you like this blog, you might like:

University District: What's In a Name?

Calgary: Naming Challenge

Calgary: The History Capital of Canada?