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What's in a Name?

June 17, 2020

Crowsnest Pass, which takes its name from the scenic mountain that looms large over the area, has a storied history of rum runners, explorers, and miners, but it’s the origin of the name ‘Crowsnest’ that holds the most contention.

Captain John Palliser, an Irish-born geographer and explorer, and his team are speculated to be the first non-natives to document Crowsnest Pass during the British North American Exploring Expedition (otherwise known as the Palliser Expedition). At the time, the Pass was most commonly referred to as the ‘British Kutanie pass’. The first mention of Crowsnest is in a report from December 1858 written by Captain Blackiston of the Pallister Expedition, who wrote: “I have not mentioned the existence of two other passes across the portion of the mountain, called the Crow-nest and Flathead Passes… The Crow-nest Pass, of which I have marked the general direction on the plan, follows up Crow-nest River, a tributary of Belly River, into the mountains, and gains the west side near 'The Steeples.'.”

What’s clear is that although the Palliser Expedition were the first to survey and document the rugged wilderness of southwestern Alberta, the name existed long before the team explored the Pass. Here are a few theories that surround the origin of the name ‘Crowsnest’:

  • The most popular theory—and the one that is most widely accepted as truth—is that the name is a translation of the Cree Indian name kah-ka-ioo-wut-tshis-tun and of the Blackfoot name ma-sto-eeas, which translates to the ‘nest of the crow (or raven)’, and refers to the nesting of crows at the base of the mountain.
  • Oral Native traditions offer a different, more interesting explanation. Legend tells of an epic battle between the Blackfoot people and the invading Crow tribe from Montana in 1853. In the midst of battle, a piece of the mountain broke off and fell onto those fighting, killing over 200 men. The Blackfoot people believed that this was a sign from Napi (Old Man), the creator in Blackfoot mythology, to cease fighting. The battle ended, and the Blackfoot carved, “Peace forever in this valley. Let no one break the peace” onto a piece of fallen rock. The area was named ‘Crow’s Nest Pass’ to honour the Crow Indians that died in battle.
  • The third theory is also centred on the battle between the Blackfoot and the Crow people, however in this version, the Blackfoot trapped and killed the Crow Indians at the base of a mountain. To commemorate their victory, the tribe named the mountain ‘Crow’s Nest’.
  • Another oral history of the origin of Crowsnest belongs to the Ktunaxa Nation, which is comprised of multiple bands spanning east of the Rocky Mountains and south into the United States. The Ktunaxa traditionally used and occupied Crowsnest Pass prior to 1846, and almost exclusively controlled the region until the rise of Blackfoot confederacy and disease epidemics in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Kokinakitteis, otherwise known as Raven's House or Crowsnest Mountain, is an especially sacred land, and is considered by Ktunaxa as the home of the creation being Raven. Ktunaxa oral history notes that the mountain was a lookout to watch the movements of Blackfoot groups and buffalo in the Crowsnest Pass and surrounding valleys. A Ktunaxa elder from Tobacco Plains explained that the original translation resulting in the naming of the area as ‘Crowsnest’ was actually incorrect, and that the Ktunaxa place name should have been translated as 'Raven’s House'. For more information on Ktunaxa, read a recent Memorandum prepared by Dr. Craig Candler and Mathew Murray of the Firelight Group.

Today, the legends that surrounds the naming of Crowsnest live on in tales of by-gone times. Which do you believe to be true?

To learn more about the rich and illustrious history of the Pass, take a walk through the past at the Crowsnest Museum or read Diana Wilson’s “Triumph and Tragedy in the Crowsnest Pass”, available on Amazon.

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