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Nooksack Place Names: Geography, Culture, and Language

By Allan Richardson, Brent Galloway

Review By Bill Angelbeck

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 179 Autumn 2013  | p. 216-218

Place names have an incalculable value. A name can tie together the particularities of language, history, and tradition. Allan Richardson and Brent Galloway have compiled place-names in Nooksack territory. It’s the result of many years of research, and it shows.

The Nooksack are a Coast Salish group whose traditional lands centre on the Nooksack River in northwestern Washington state, from Bellingham to Mount Baker — or Kweq’ Smánit, as the latter is known, which means “white mountain,” the peak that’s visible throughout Nooksack landscape. That name refers to its glacier-strewn cap, but there are other names for its shoulders as well as the lower reaches of the mountain.

Some place-names and their associations offer a sense of what happened in those locales: portage locales; river spots where travellers could no longer pole their canoe upriver (92); a place that was given as a gift (120); a lake with spiritual connotations (169); a river eddy that was a portal leading elsewhere (124); a pithouse village abandoned after a flood (98) or smallpox outbreak (134). These significations simply gain greater meaning when tethered to the map and territory, which grounds their history within the contemporary landscape.

This book follows after several other place-name compendiums for the Northwest Coast, such as A Stó:lō Coast Salish Historical Atlas, edited by Keith T. Carlson (2001), David Rozen’s (1985) thesis, “Place-Names of the Island Halkomelem Indian People”; or Thomas Thornton’s (2012) Haa Lzelk’w Has Aan’ Saax’u / Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land for the Tlingit area. Perhaps the earliest precursor is T. T. Waterman’s piece in the Geographical Review (12, 2 [1922]), entitled “The Geographical Names used by the Indians of the Pacific Coast.” Richardson and Galloway ably fit into this lineage. Indeed, they apply an analysis to the place-names with a linguistic rigor that often exceeds these predecessors, which can be laconic with details or lacking analysis. Each place-name is supplied with Nooksack practical orthography and followed by the phonetic transcription, phonemic form, and etymology. They include variant names, when available, and then they explain the known meanings and associations. And, for those in which linguistic transcriptions appear cryptic, an accompanying website for the book supplies audio recordings of all place-names, recorded by George Adams (Syélpxen).

Part 1 includes an introduction, a brief chapter about the Nooksack and their distinctive language, Lhéchelesem, and a discussion of the main sources used for book, including material from boundary surveys, various maps, and the field notes and tapes of ethnographers such as Percival Jeffcott, Paul Fetzer, and Oliver Wells. In Part 3, they close with succinct analyses of naming patterns and offer some of their insights into place-name methodology as well as language loss and rebirth. But, it’s Part 2 that is the heart of the book: 141 place-names, their associations within Nooksack culture, and relevant history and analysis. Seventeen place-names regard areas in British Columbia, from Cultus Lake to Mount Slesse. There are three indices — by place-name number, Nooksack name, and by English name — however, a subject index would have been useful too, allowing researchers to more readily find specific kinds of sites or activities.

While it was not their explicit intention, the authors missed an opportunity to more fully detail Nooksack culture. There is no overriding ethnography for Nooksack peoples that is widely available, and the introductory section they provide is brief and largely defines them by geographic and linguistic boundaries; as well, the history they provide is largely a chronicle since contact. While the authors mention cultural survival and revitalization, they do not provide readers with an overall sense of Nooksack culture. This was a chance to present the distinctiveness of Nooksack people apart from their neighbours, rather than limiting it to language. Such a summary would have better prepared readers for the specific cultural activities mentioned in the place-names analysis.

These comments, however, are requests for an even longer work, and this work profits from many years of research, interviews, and field trips. Nooksack Place Names will long serve as a key reference for the cultural and historical geography of Nooksack territory and the broader Coast Salish area.


McHalsie, Albert (Sonny). 2001. “Halq’eméylem Place Names in Stó:lō territory.” In A Stó:lō Coast Salish Historical Atlas, edited by Keith Thor Carlson, pp. 134-153. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre.

Rozen, David L. 1985. “Place-Names of the Island Halkomelem Indian People.” Master’s thesis. University of British Columbia, Department of Anthropology.

Thornton, Thomas F. 2012.  Haa Lzelk’w Has Aan’ Saax’u / Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land. Seattle: University of Washington Press and Sealaska Heritage Institute. 

Waterman, T T. 1922. “The Geographical Names used by the Indians of the Pacific Coast.” Geographical Review 12 (2): 175-194.

Nooksack Place Names: Geography, Culture, and Language
By Allan Richardson and Brent Galloway
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011. 248 pp. $29.95 paper