The Yukon Geographical Place Names Board (YGPNB) meets at least twice a year to decide upon proposed names. The Board has six members appointed by the Minister of Tourism and Culture, three of whom are nominated by the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN). The Board solicits advice and information from local experts and such organizations as the Yukon Archives, the Yukon Native Language Centre (YNLC), CYFN and the Yukon Historical and Museums Association (YHMA). All of the Board members have special interests and backgrounds relevant to geographical names review. The Board operates in cooperation with the territorial government’s Heritage Resources Unit and has a close association with the Yukon Heritage Resources Board (YHRB).
The YGPNB reviews geographical name submissions and makes recommendations to the Minister on whether an application should be approved or not. The recommendations are based on careful research and consultation with the people who live in the area where a name is being considered. Once the Minister has given approval to new names, they are then forwarded to the Geographical Names Board of Canada, where they are entered into the national Toponymic Database. Official names in the database are used in the production of gazetteers and topographical maps.
In the case of Yukon First Nations, they may name or rename geographical features on their Settlement Lands. These names are then deemed to have been approved by the YGPNB and are forwarded to the Minister for consideration.
The Formation of the Yukon Geographical Place Names Board
Geographical Place Names are an essential part of Yukon’s heritage. They preserve a record of the territory’s rich history and culture, giving the landscape power and meaning.
Names such as Gyò Cho Chú (Big Salmon River) tell where animals and fish are plentiful.
Other names, such as Tthechä̀l Mǟn (Sekulman Lake) “stone scraper for hides” describe artifacts, people and events. Today’s Yukon First Nations still remember these names and are working to record them for future generations.
Beginning in the nineteenth century, explorers, fur traders, and prospectors came to the Yukon to trade with native people, search for gold, and explore the vast landscape, giving their own names to the land. The Danish explorer Vitus Bering was the first non-native to name a geographical feature in northwest America.
Bering had entered the newly formed navy of the Russian tsar Peter the Great and in 1724 was appointed to conduct an expedition to explore the water routes between Siberia and North America. In 1741, Bering named an island lying off the coast in the proximity of a very prominent mountain. He anchored near the island on St. Elias’ feast day and named the island for the saint.
The dominant mountain in question was, later in the eighteenth century, given the name of the island and Mount St. Elias become one of several peaks that define the border between Canada’s Yukon and the American State of Alaska.
While Bering and explorers to follow gave names to geographical features without asking the local names for places, others, such as geologist George Dawson and the Yukon’s first Commissioner, William Ogilvie, recorded many native names during their years in the Yukon, including the Yusezyu and Tatchun Rivers in central Yukon.
Many of the official names on the Yukon map today were given by non-native settlers who came to the Yukon during the Gold Rush period of the 1890s. In the area around Dawson City, Allgold, Bonanza, Eureka, and Nogold recall the successes – and failures – of the miners who came to the territory during the Klondike Gold Rush. Names such as Carcross (from Caribou Crossing), Fox Lake, and Eagle’s Nest Bluff, testify to the richness of Yukon’s wildlife resources.
Other places, such as Five Finger Rapids on the Yukon River, Blackstone Mountain, and White River, were named for the shape, colour, and form of the land and water itself. One of the best known names of this type is Whitehorse, which took its name from the White Horse Rapids, whose foamy white crests reminded early prospectors of horses’ manes. Another legend tells of a chief’s white horse drowning there.
How does a name become official? During the 1880s and 1890s, American explorers such as Frederick Schwatka had established a pattern of naming Canadian geographical features after Americans and Europeans. An example is Miles Canyon located near Whitehorse that was named after General Nelson Miles. There was concern in Ottawa over Americans naming geographical features without consulting the Canadian government, and so in 1897, Canada established the Geographic Board of Canada, whose mandate was to approve official place names across the country.
Interestingly, one of the motivations for establishing this board came from events happening in the Yukon, from the discovery of gold in the Klondike. Today the successor to the national Board is known as the Geographical Names Board of Canada (GNBC).
The GNBC is made up of 23 members representing the provinces and territories as well as federal departments that deal with surveying, mapping, translation, archives, parks, and native affairs. The Manager of the Heritage Resources Unit of the Yukon Government’s Department of Tourism and Culture – Cultural Services Branch sits as the Yukon representative on this board.
For many years, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (DIAND) made recommendations to GNBC on geographical naming in the Yukon. DIAND would often seek local input when making these recommendations, but the authority still lay in Ottawa. This meant that the Yukon, unlike the provinces, did not have responsibility for geographical naming.
In 1986, the responsibility for naming geographical features was transferred from DIAND to the Government of Yukon, putting geographical naming in the hands of Yukon residents for the first time. As part of this transfer the Government of Yukon established the Yukon Geographical Names Board (YGNB) in 1987 to undertake the job of researching and approving geographical names.
In 1995, under the Yukon Land Claims Agreement, the Yukon Geographical Names Board was replaced by the Yukon Geographical Place Names Board (YGPNB). Like its predecessor, it was established with the primary function and responsibility to consider and recommend the naming or renaming of places or features located within the Yukon.