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What’s in the Name of Manitoba

by Henry McKay

Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1970, Volume 15, Number 2

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

During the early stages of our country, in regions as yet untrodden by white men, the Indian took the liberty of Adam’s privilege and gave his own names to different places. Most of the original nomenclature of our country originated in the Indian mind. Many of the Indian place names denote the nature of places as seen at first sight. Other names arose from noteworthy events; some from extremely ridiculous occurrences; and others again from superstitious manifestations. Manitoba is of this latter vintage.

Our province of Manitoba derived its name from the Cree word “Manito-wah-paow,” which means The Spirits’ Narrows. If you look at the map of Manitoba, you will see at the central part of Lake Manitoba a narrow part about half a mile in breadth connecting the north and south ends of the lake. This place is known as the Narrows of Lake Manitoba. Owing to the natural situation of The Narrows, it is easily affected by winds. Thus, with a north wind a strong current runs southward and vice versa with a south wind.

At the Narrows of Lake Manitoba and on the margin of its shores there are shelving limestone ledges of shingle, and at certain intervals, owing to the action of the currents and waves slightly disturbing and displacing the loose shingly surface rocks, a tinkling sound similar to the jingling of small bells is emitted and re-echoed into numerous cavities caused by the combating forces of the elements of ages past.

The Indian, who was always on the alert for anything of a supernatural existence, on hearing these unusual sounds, at once attributed them to the voice of the spirit and called the place “Manitowahpaow,” The Spirits’ Narrows ... Here for certain was the abode of Manito.

At the Spirits’ Narrows, owing to its natural facility, the Indian going west on the warpath crossed over, but he went this way chiefly for the purpose of consulting the oracle with its mystic signals for weal or woe. Here, too, the Indians propitiated by prayers and offerings for good or ill luck going and returning from the warpath. Also at this place the writer came to see and hear the mystic voices of the fragmentary rocks whence is derived the name we are all so proud of - Manitoba.

Public Archives of Manitoba, 100-1-13 (1931).

Page revised: 4 September 2014

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