History is important. It gives us a deeper connection to a place and the people who once lived there. The Forks of Winnipeg is a place rich in heritage and history that reminds us about days long ago. It is the meeting place of two rivers that stretch out to other lakes and rivers in all directions.
There is a lot to learn about an area when we have passion for digging up the facts. Did you know that Manitoba is made up of two or more words? Manitou means spirit, but I wonder what were the exact thoughts and ideas when using those old words. What native speakers meant by spirit long ago is likely not what we think today.
Where the Assiniboine River ends at the Red River was a crossroads for canoes. Ancient travelers would have known it as an important landmark or turning point. All the water at that point flows north towards giant lakes and eventually the salty bay. Lake Winnipeg and the Saskatchewan River are gateways to the far west, and the Winnipeg River is the gateway to the east. It is all a part of a vast watershed that used to be known as Rupert’s Land.
Our words for places have a long history. Winnipeg and Manitoba are deeply connected to hundreds of years of native languages, stories, explorers, trappers, fur traders, and map makers. Winnipeg might mean muddy waters, but surely the natural color of the river is not what it is now. What color was the river?
What did Manitou and Ahbee really mean? What specific place is referred to? What did spirit mean to the aboriginals who walked this land long ago? It was not easy to perfectly translate Ojibway and Cree words many centuries ago. Imagine what was truly being talked about. There is a historic use of these words. Manitou is no ordinary idea or thought. Manitou is something wondrous and there are original meanings that might be presently lost.
The land and rivers here are the natural and timeless features, along with some idea of spirit. Maybe they meant spirit in the sense of divine, supernatural, or Creator of all things. Can we ever know the exact origin and history of these names? The word Manitoba is about spirit and maybe a place near Lake Manitoba. In similarity, the word manitou is also used for Manitou Ahbee in Whiteshell Provincial Park. Also, Manitoulin Island refers to spirit. In all these cases, we do not know a lot of details about this mysterious spirit.
Photos of petroforms at Whiteshell Provincial Park at Bannock Point. Courtesy of Joseph Prymak.
Even the word Canada is shrouded in mystery. Ottawa is related to the Odawa tribe, but few Canadians know about this. More Canadians can begin to learn the wonderful history of names for the places we live in and are connected to.
It is amazing to know the history of a place and the historic names attached to it. Winnipeg and Manitoba are names that can add a sense of wonder about a place. The Red and Assiniboine rivers were central to fishing, food, drinking water, bathing, cooking, trade, canoeing, travel, and the sharing of knowledge. The first maps of the area were made on birch bark by the Ojibway. Ancient peoples played a key role in the settlements, exploration, and mapping of this area. One can try to imagine the lost conversations about the geography close to Winnipeg. Did the word Manitou play a central part of many past conversations?
There is a lot of amazing history to ponder. Places will never be seen the same way after realizing the history of names over hundreds of years. Winnipeg, Manitoba is one of those places. It is never dull to contemplate the river names and the spirit of this interesting place. I encourage you to explore the history of every day words.
If you would like to read more Anishnaabeg stories behind the petroforms and the Ojibway name of Manitoba, you can read it here: