Words, Places, and Belonging | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves

Words, Places, and Belonging

Read excerpts that explore the importance of land and landscape to Indigenous identity and culture.  
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This resource is intended for educators in Canada who are teaching in English.

At a Glance



English — CA
Also available in:
French — CA


  • Social Studies
  • Culture & Identity

This guide explores a disputed territory—indigenous physical and cultural spaces that have been destructively affected by the colonization colonization of Canada. The three excerpts below explore the relationships between identity on the one hand and culture, land, and landscape on the other. Most ethnic groups and nations associate themselves with their historical birthplace—an area, a country, even a continent—which is central to their identity. The things that make such places so important to ethnic and national groups are traditions, memories, myths, and history. These elements not only connect past and future generations but also weave a rich tapestry where landscapes and identity are often inseparable. But what happens when those links are broken, unintentionally or intentionally? We will explore these themes in the readings that follow.

Mother Earth

The name Canada is an imposition for many Indigenous Peoples. In First Nations’ foundational myths, this territory is called Turtle Island, and its meaning is explored in creation stories . These stories describe the birth of these First Nations and their spiritual ties to the land and their surroundings. Traditionally, the indigenous universe is made up of all kinds of beings, and all of them are infused with spirituality. (In other words, there are no distinctions between human beings and other beings in this regard.) These stories also explain the roles, duties, and purpose of the members of these nations, thus providing them with a well-defined identity. The centrality of land in indigenous worldviews goes even further: as in many other religions, place, especially sacred places, plays an important role in grounding Indigenous Peoples in the physical world. 1 Therefore, when those places are taken away, or their names are altered, the indigenous spirituality, identity, and perhaps even existence as a distinct group are undermined or even destroyed. The excerpt below, from an essay called “Honouring Earth,” describes the holistic and spiritual importance of the land to such peoples.

Mother Earth provides us with our food and clean water sources. She bestows us with materials for our homes, clothes and tools. She provides all life with raw materials for our industry, ingenuity and progress. She is the basis of who we are as “real human beings” that include our languages, our cultures, our knowledge and wisdom to know how to conduct ourselves in a good way. If we listen from the place of connection to the Spirit That Lives in All Things, Mother Earth teaches what we need to know to take care of her and all her children. All are provided by our mother, the Earth.

Indigenous peoples are caretakers of Mother Earth and realize and respect her gifts of water, air and fire. First Nations peoples have a special relationship with the earth and all living things in it. This relationship is based on a profound spiritual connection to Mother Earth that guided indigenous peoples to practice reverence, humility and reciprocity. It is also based on the subsistence needs and values extending back thousands of years. Hunting, gathering, and fishing to secure food includes harvesting food for self, family, the elderly, widows, the community, and for ceremonial purposes. Everything is taken and used with the understanding that we take only what we need, and we must use great care and be aware of how we take and how much of it so that future generations will not be put in peril. 2

Landscape and Identity

Our connections to the land also provide us with a sense of belonging. Is it true, then, that we are where we come from? Australian scholar Ken Taylor writes that “one of our deepest needs is for a sense of identity and belonging and . . . a common denominator in this is human attachment to landscape and how we find identity in landscape and place.” 3 Taylor explains that geography is not simply our physical surroundings; it is a landscape full of meaning, which it gets from the names, stories, and language we use to organize it. In other words, what makes our surroundings more than nameless hills, lakes, rivers, and forests—what makes all this into a landscape for us as human beings—is the meaning we give it. And in this way, landscapes become symbolic as well as part of one’s group culture and identity. Here are a few reflections on landscape, identity, naming, and meaning from Christi Belcourt (Biidewe’anikwetok), a well-known Métis visual artist.

First Nations, Ojibway, Blackfoot, Indian, Aboriginal, Treaty, Halfbreed, Cree,  Status Indian are all fairly familiar English words but none of them are the names by which we, the various Indigenous Peoples, called ourselves in our own languages. By contrast how many Canadians have heard these names: Nehiyaw, Nehiyawak, Otipemisiwak and Apeetogosan? Yet, these are who I am because these are the names my grandparents used to describe and call ourselves. Even “Métis” is not the name people called themselves in the language in Manitou Sakhahigan, the community where my dad was born and raised in. And even that place is not known by its original name but by its English/French name “Lac Ste. Anne.” The issue of naming places in Canada is complex. Some would argue that Canada reflects its Indigenous roots because there are many place names which are derived from the original Indigenous languages. . . Toronto is a case in point. I would argue that most Canadians are quite comfortable, and even comforted, by the names of the places they call home that are Indigenous in origin—but only to a point. As long as they are in name only and don’t come with the burden of acknowledging Canada’s past colonialist history and the erasure of Indigenous ownership of lands . . . the renaming of lakes, rivers or areas of land from existing Indigenous names into English or other European names is widely recognized by those who have knowledge deeper than a puddle, as a colonialist tool that was used extensively in the claiming of Indigenous lands throughout North, Central and South America. As famed University of California geographer Bernard Nietschmann put it, “More Indigenous territory has been claimed by maps than by guns, and more Indigenous territory can be reclaimed and defended by maps than by guns.” 4

Can this process be reversed? Recently, as part of the Ogimaa Mikana Project, some European names for streets, roads, paths, and trails in the Toronto area have been replaced with names in Anishinaabemowin (the language of the Anishinaabe Nation). The project is led by Hayden King, the director of the Centre for Indigenous Governance and a teacher at Ryerson University. As Lacey McRae Williams writes:

The Ogimaa Mikana (Leader’s Trail) project began [in 2013] as a means of reclaiming and renaming streets and places in Toronto. As Hayden explains it, the idea has been to create visible and provocative interruptions in the urban landscape. The two ways Hayden and his team reinsert Anishinaabe language and culture into Toronto are by 1) taking the literal translation of the place name and using the Anishinaabemowin name, and 2) reinterpreting a place name to disrupt [its connection to the European tradition]. At Spadina, for example, the original Anishinaabemowin name replaced the Anglicized street name . . . Ishpadinaa literally translates to “little hill” or “place on a hill” which makes a lot of sense when standing at College looking north up “Spadina Avenue” or even south to the water. On Queen Street the team chose to replace “Queen” with what they ended up titling their project, Ogimaa Mikana, meaning “Leader’s Trail”. The reason for placing the “Leader’s Trail” on Queen Street may not need explaining for some; It did for me however, because like many residents, I took this street name at face value and had associated it with the space it occupies now, “The Fashion District”. This name became a part of my everyday, blended in, and I didn’t take the time until recently to question its origins. 5

Connection Questions

  1. What are some names of streets where you live? Have you considered the meaning of these names? What do the names of the streets where you live mean or suggest about who named them?
  2. Who has the right to name places morally or legally? What are the effects of naming places? What power does naming give the naming person, group, or institution?
  3. How effective do you think such acts of renaming can be? What can renaming give peoples whose language and history is unrecognized? What else might be needed to restore a suppressed culture?
  • colonizationcolonization: This term refers to a situation in which one nation takes over and settles a geographic area populated by other, indigenous peoples. For example, the area now known as North America was colonized by Europeans from the sixteenth century onward at the expense of the indigenous populations that had been living there for millennia.
  • creation storiescreation stories: A story that describes the creation of the world and is passed down through the generations. According to some indigenous creation myths, the Great Spirit constructed four orders of the world: the physical world, the plant world, the animal world, and the human world, all of which were tightly connected to and dependent upon each other. Many variations on the theme of creation exist, but most of them make the connection between human beings and the world that surrounds them.
  • 1Michael Lee Ross, First Nations Sacred Sites in Canada’s Courts (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005), 3.
  • 2“Honouring Earth,” Assembly of First Nations website, accessed April 29, 2015.
  • 3“Landscape,” Taylor continues, “is not simply what we see, but a way of seeing: we see it with our eyes but interpret it with our mind and ascribe values to landscape for intangible–spiritual–reasons. Landscape can therefore be seen as a cultural construct in which our sense of place and memories inhere.” Ken Taylor, “Landscape and Memory: Cultural Landscapes, Intangible Values and Some Thoughts on Asia,” a paper delivered at the UNESCO third international conference, accessed September 19, 2014.
  • Status IndianStatus Indian: The Indian Act of 1876 created the legal category of Status Indian, which referred to an Indian registered under the act. Although receiving this status provided one with certain benefits, such as tax exemptions, the Indian Act established a paternalistic relationship between First Nations and the federal government. (For example, Aboriginal individuals living on a reserve could not leave it without permission from the Indian agent. Also, Status Indians were not able to vote until the 1960s.) It discriminated against many people who lived and self-identified as indigenous but were not included in the act’s definition of who was Indian. This legal category, despite many amendments to the act, still exists today.
  • 4Christi Belcourt (Biidewe’anikwetok), “Reclaiming Ourselves One Name at a Time,” DividedNoMore (blog), January 23, 2013. Reproduced by permission of Christi Belcourt.
  • 5Lacey McRae Williams, “Reclaiming Spaces/Places: Restoring Indigenous Street Names in Toronto,” Spacing website, November 4, 2014, accessed April 30, 2015.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "Words, Places, and Belonging," last updated September 20, 2019.

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