Barry Ahenakew: Place Names of the nêhiyawak

Told over two days, the stories related in these videos represent the view of the Plains Cree people of their own history and place within North America.  

The videos, maps, and text transcriptions that make up this project are all drawn from a presentation in three parts made by Elder Barry Ahenakew of Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation (Treaty 6, Saskatchewan). Ahenakew was recorded speaking at “Our Land / Our Cultures: Saskatchewan Geospatial Conference” hosted by First Nations University of Canada, Saskatchewan Aboriginal Land Technicians and Firelight Group on March 9-10, 2021, and has continued to share generously from his vast wealth of traditional knowledge. Click on section heads to reveal additional details. 

Elder Ahenakew’s stories were given to him by his grandparents, parents, uncles, and the old people of his nehiyawak (Plains Cree) community.  These stories come from the heart of an Indigenous nation with a firm understanding of itself and its place as central to important events, spirit and thought.  This is a rare and precious gift for current and future generations of Cree people seeking to understand their cultural inheritance, language, relationships to lands which sustained generations of their people.  While we could justly mourn that there are not more story carriers like Elder Ahenakew to share their inherited histories, we should take the time to learn and appreciate what is here in these two hours and 75 locations presented in these maps and recordings.

History happens in places.  Without knowing where history occurred, events become disembodied abstractions.  In physical places, historic narratives become real, and the past intersects with the present.  We cannot stand beside people who played their part in history, but when we can locate the place and orient to the four directions we come closer to seeing what ancestors saw, felt and experienced.  The stories offered here by Elder Barry Ahenakew of Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation are nothing short of a Plains Cree geography of North America – how the country came to be known and how that knowledge has been passed by word of mouth through generations to the present day.  The stories stretch from the stars to the country where humans go when they die.

The keys to these stories are often the names for places or the names of ancestors who’s deeds or experiences are linked to the location.  kâ-wâkisciwâhk kisiskâciwan – “The Big Curve of the Saskatchewan River” – for example, is the place where Ahtahkakoop and his people hunted the last buffalo they ever saw some time in the 1880’s.  Through naming, the story and the moment in history comes home to a definite place that will be remembered by all who read of it and look at where it occurred.  These stories integrate moments of the definite past as well as creation events of the long ago mythical past.  Appearing are genealogies, names and events connecting into the 18th century as well as the acts of mythic ancestors whose deeds precede any meaningful date.  Wisahkecahkniyânîmis – the Dancer, the mostos-awâsis – the Buffalo Child.  Intertribal relations, treaties and conflicts between are also recorded with the actions of the Blackfoot, Shoshone, Gros Ventres.

Elder Ahenakew provided guidance for the telling of many stories that are winter stories of Wisahkecahk, Our Older Brother, the hero-ancestor and trickster.  “Some people feel these stories should not be told when the snow is not on the ground.  I don’t bother with that.  Most people don’t remember our stories and that is what is important.  When you gave me tobacco, I prayed that these stories would be remembered in a good way. That to me is an important thing.  Most people don’t even remember that He was not the oldest one, that there were others who came before Wisahkecahk.”

Despite more than 150 years of changes imposed on the landscapes of Saskatchewan by settler farms, cities and towns, roads, and hydro-lines, the land is waiting quietly with Indigenous stories that span hundreds of years.  The span of time covered in Elder Ahenakew’s stories makes this seem a very brief. They are not colonizers’ stories, although the newcomers do appear periodically, like at Mâhtâwanak – “Where the Visitors are Coming” where the Hudson’s Bay Company built a fort at the mouth of the Churchill River on Hudson’s Bay in the late 1600’s.  Indeed, these stories present a shifting multigenerational migration of the Cree people from the eastern seaboard all the way to the Rocky Mountains.

We are honoured to share these stories with you and are deeply grateful to Barry and his daughter Sekwan Ahenakew, for sharing them with us.

– Dr Andrew M. Miller, First Nations University of Canada

Elder Barry Ahenakew is widely known and respected as a storyteller and knowledge holder of the nêhiyawêwin, or Plains Cree. He was born at Ahtahkakoop in the 1940s, and kept away from Residential School, educated instead in the traditional way by grandparents who took him along wherever they went. omosôma, his grandfather, would tell Barry, “ôta: api. nitôhta.” – Sit here and listen, With Plains Cree as his only language, he was able to understand and absorb and retain everything discuss by his grandfather, his friends and brothers. As Barry sat and listened, he learned sacred stories, locations, place names: history that his family and community had been handing down orally for generations. 

In the video presentations from which our map is drawn, Elder Barry shares names and histories of the nêhiyawak (Plains Cree) people given to him by his grandparents and other knowledge holders. While today, the reserves of the Plains Cree are in Saskatchewan and Alberta, these stories stretch from the Atlantic coast to the Rocky Mountains and contain oral histories of the Indigenous Cree peoples’ travels and engagements with the people, environments, and spirits of North America over hundreds of years. While brief, these stories demonstrate the richness of Indigenous oral traditions and relationships with the lands today known as Canada and the United States.

Conditions under which we share this information: Sacred Laws

[Transcribed verbatim from Barry Ahenakew’s comments in Video 2, 1:08:39-]

You don’t talk about these things unless you’re actually doing these things. That’s a rule of the old people, that’s a law. You can’t – not even come here and talk about this  – unless you’ve done it. I do Thunderbird Dance since I was nineteen years old. I’ve done Thunderbird Dances, I’ve done Ghost Dances, I’ve done Horse Dances, I’ve done Bear Lodges. I can talk about them, that’s a law.

I’m hosting this to you, so that is okay. You talk about making a book, I’m hosting it to you. So I’m there. Standing with you. Because I’ve done them, actually done these dances. Today you get these people now they’re just jumping in there and sitting there and doing these lodges. Somehow, someway they’ll pay for it from the spirit world. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be, they got to earn that right to be able to run a lodge for somebody over here. And the way to earn it is to have done it themselves, so that’s two laws I’m talking about. Those are laws of the old people, the spirit world, that they’ve learned through the years on passing it on down. So that’s why I say it’s okay what I’m doing here is because I’ve earned it. I’m standing with you guys, whatever you’re going to do with this info down the road, how you end up progressing with it.”

This Google My Map (when complete will be) made up of three layers: one for each of the three video recording sessions. By toggling the layers, users may view one layer at a time, or all three layers concurrently. Different colours are used for the map points of each layer, which are numbered consecutively as they arose in discussion between Barry and Andrew Miller. By clicking on individual map pins, users will open a menu offering details about that location, as well as a time stamp corresponding to the video in which it is discussed.

On the black Google My Maps menu bar, the icon at the upper left opens and closes the map’s legend. By clicking the red check boxes, you may choose which layers of the map to view. 

The icon at the upper right (that looks like four corners) opens a full-screen copy of the map in a new browser tab, with a red, Google Map icon. To return to this screen, click back on the tab with the Cree Literacy incon, or simply close map tab. 

The Google My Map URL for this project is:

It’s a privilege to take part in a project with so many willing contributors. In addition to the principal participants, Elder Barry Ahenakew and Dr Andrew M Miller, we also gratefully acknowledge: 

  • The video recordings that were made onsite at First Nations University of Canada by Eric Anaquod and processed by Anaquod Studios. 
  • Mapping and technical assistance that was provided by Shayla Sayer-Brabant and Morgan Esperance.  Morgan also prepared the transcriptions. 
  • Transcription of Plains Cree words and place names and map refinement were provided by Arden Ogg of the Cree Literacy Network, who also offered to host this web presentation. 
  • Funding for this project was provided by Indigenous Services Canada and Social Science and Humanities Research Council – Insight Development Grant.