"Often Confused As": The Contestation of Colonial Naming Practices in the Yukon

Authors: Martina Volfova*, University of British Columbia
Topics: Cultural Geography, Polar Regions, Cultural and Political Ecology
Keywords: Indigenous Languages, Place Names, Linguistic Geography
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


At the core of this paper lie Indigenous peoples’ struggles over knowledge, meaning, and responsibility for the stewardship of their traditional lands in contemporary northern Canada. In opposition are fundamentally different claims, articulated by wildlife management officers and other private and governmental agencies, exercising institutional control over the same lands. I will explores some of the strategies through which the Kaska, northern Dene people living in the Yukon Territory, articulate and assert claims to their traditional territory. In particular, I will discuss instances in which individuals choose to draw on a system of Indigenous linguistic and semiotic resources, to strategically employ the Kaska language to contest colonial naming practices, insisting instead on the use of traditional Kaska toponyms. These toponyms express and embody Kaska historical, ecological, and sociological knowledge and demonstrate people's deep connection to the area. A skillful employment of the Kaska language seeks to on one hand, provide a larger context and exposure to different perspectives, and on the other, productively disrupt and confront the everyday flow of things, including many "common-sense" understandings and assumptions guiding institutional resource management decisions. Given that these linguistic interventions occurr in a context where Indigenous people are struggling to assert their rights and defend their autonomy, I argue that the public mobilization of Indigenous languages must be understood as a tangible form of social action, rather than just as a means of conveying referential meaning.

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