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These Banff Mountains Had Indigenous Names

Cascade Mountain, Tunnel Mountain, Sulpher Mountain and Mount Rundle are colonial names that replaced Indigenous ones

Over the past few years, a concerted effort to change racist and sexist names in the climbing community has resulted in the renaming of countless rock climbs, ice climbs and bouldering problems. Outside the immediate climbing culture are mountain names that have been in place for over 100 years. One such mountain in the Canadian Rockies was renamed in 2020, read about Bald Eagle Peak here.

Like many in the world of climbing, I believe that if a mountain had an existing Indigenous name, then we should erase the colonial name and change it back to what it was. In Toronto, city council recently voted to rename the famous Dundas Street, because it’s named after Henry Dundas, who had ties to the slave trade. I hope one day no mountain in Canada has a name associated with someone, something, or some time that had a negative impact on the people who lived here before colonialists arrived.

I’ve always looked up to alpinist Colin Haley, who wrote about mountain names in 2015. “Many people who know me are aware of my preference for Indigenous mountain names in favour of colonialist names,” he said. “Of course, things are not perfect. Often the knowledge of Indigenous names has become lost or muddled by lack of written history, and often the same mountain was referred to by different names by different tribes. Nonetheless, I think that any name that was known to be used by Indigenous people in the past trumps a colonialist name that was applied hundreds of years later. This is especially true in North America, where many colonialist names have incredibly little relation to the mountain or area.”

Haley listed many famous mountains that should be changed back to their Indigenous names; here are a few: Sultana (Mount Foraker), Begguya (Mount Hunter), Tahoma (Mount Rainier), Dakobed (Glacier Peak), Wy’east (Mount Hood), Pahto (Mount Adams), Nch’kay (Mount Garibaldi), Yuh-hai-has-kun (Mount Robson) and Cerro Chaltén (Cerro Fitz Roy). Consider incorporating their Indigenous names into conversations and trip reports.

The town of Banff is surrounded by peaks famous for their climbing, day hikes, ski lines and bike trails, but many of them are called names used to erase their Indigenous titles. I find it messed up that most “educational” and “historical” signs don’t recognize that people lived here before the late 1800s. And if they do, they cherry-pick some information, but leave out the decades of cultural assimilation.

I’m not the first to suggest that these mountains should have their colonial names changed back to their Indigenous ones, but I’m happy to remind folks. Sulpher, Rundle, Cascade and Tunnel are fine names, but not for the mountains they’re attached to. Below are the Indigenous names of the four mentioned, the ones many people believe they should officially be changed back to.

Sulpher Mountain was called Spiritual Mountain by the Stoney Nakoda, who used to climb the mountain to harvest medicinal plants and bark from the Whitebark Pine. Blended with other ingredients, the bark was used to treat ailments. European surveyor George Dawson called it Terrace Mountain on his 1886 map, but it was officially named Sulphur Mountain in 1916 for the hot springs at its base.

Mount Rundle is named for Robert Rundle, a Methodist minister. It was named in 1858 by John Palliser. Rundle was invited by the Hudson’s Bay Company to do missionary work in the area. He introduced syllabics, a written language for the Cree and only visited the Banff area twice. The Cree name for Rundle is Waskahigan Watchi or House Mountain (not to be confused with Howse Peak on the Icefields Parkway).

Cascade Mountain was called Minihapa by the Stoney Nakoda. It’s a dominant peak in the Bow Valley and one of the most iconic in Banff National Park. In 1841, Sir George Simpson passed by and noted “a stream of water which, though of very considerable volume, looked like a thread of silver on the grey rock.” Then in 1845, Father Pierre-Jean De Smet wrote a “beautiful crystalline fountain issues from the centre of a perpendicular rock about five hundred feet high, and then pours its water over the plain in foam and mist.” But it was James Hector in 1858, who said he’d reached “a beautiful little prairie at the base of the ‘mountain where the water falls’ or the ‘cascade mountain.'” The name Cascade stuck after that.

Tunnel Mountain had a number of names, including the Blackfoot of Iinii Istako, and the Stoney Nakoda of Eyarhey Tatanga Woweyahgey Wakân. The Stoney Nakoda called it “Sleeping Buffalo” because it resembles a sleeping buffalo when viewed from the north and east.

In 1858, James Hector had named it “The Hill,” because of its status as the smallest peak adjacent to the town of Banff. Then in the 1880s, Canadian Pacific Railway surveyors building the railroad through the Bow Valley considered blasting a tunnel through it for tracks. They then discovered another route for the train around the mountain (imagine that), and the tunnel idea was abandoned, but the name Tunnel Mountain stuck.

In September 2016, 15 First Nations signed a resolution calling for the beginning of an official process with the Natural Resources Canada’s (NRC) Geographical Names Board of Canada to rename Tunnel Mountain to Sacred Buffalo Guardian Mountain. At their November 2017 “Indigenous Leaders’ Dialogue” in Banff, representatives granted the name, Sacred Buffalo Guardian Mountain ceremonially as they await the decision of the NRC.

There is an excellent online video series on the page Buffalo Mountain Banff that is sharing stories about the importance of the small peak. Watch them below. In the description for the videos, it says: “The renaming has been sitting on the NRC’s desk for four years. With your help, we can move it up the agenda and remedy a mistake lasting 140 years. Below are ways you can support the journey to renaming the mountain. To submit a video: Send us your video/photo or any creative ways to express your relations to Sacred Buffalo Guardians Mountain and be part of the next bundles buffalomountainbanff at gmail.com.” For more information on the Buffalo Treaty visit here and sign the survey here.