A short distance east of Exshaw on the Highway 1A is a little hamlet called Kananaskis. In my junior high days I came up with a little joke on it: I asked someone, “Hey, that little place just east of here, I forgot its name. What is it?” “Kananaskis,” the person said. “What was that again?” “Kananaskis!” “I don’t know. Kiss my ass and find out!”
Yes, yes, puerile. But if you were in any doubt as to how this name is pronounced, you aren’t now.
If you’re from Calgary or area, you may be thinking, “Little village? It’s a big area south of the Trans-Canada Highway! The alpine events for the 1988 Winter Olympics were held at Nakiska there!” Yes, it’s that too. The village is the first place I knew the name, but I soon enough thereafter learned that it was also the name of a provincial park and of a larger recreational area, Kananaskis Country (or K-Country for short – the park is sometimes called K-Park, not to be confused with kapok). The valley that the park and country are situated in and near is the Kanaskis Valley, and the river that runs through it is the Kananaskis River. Also of the same name are a brace of lakes, a mountain range, and a summit. Oh, wait – the summit was a G20 leaders’ summit held at the resort that’s there. A lovely resort, at the foot of Mount Kidd (which rises a full mile above the valley), with 36 holes of golf.
Oh, by the way, the golf course will be closed for the rest of this year. Those floods that affected Exshaw and Calgary? Yeah, Kananaskis too. But it will recover. Just not this year. The waters met and caused a bit too much damage. But let us be grateful for all that there still is, plus all that has been and will be.
It’s a cute, crisp name, Kananaskis. Four syllables, three a’s, two n’s, two k’s, two s’s, and an i. The k’s give it a nice kick, it has a French pineapple at heart (anana), and it ends on skis, quite fittingly. So what does it mean?
You may guess that it’s a word from a local Indian (aboriginal, First Nations) language, and you would be sort of right. The First Nation that lives right around there is the Stoneys – in their own language, the Nakoda. But Kananaskis isn’t a Nakoda word. The Nakoda name for the place is ozada imne, ‘meeting of the waters’. No, Kananaskis is the name of a Cree fellow. The explorer John Palliser named the river after him – he assumed no one who might already live around there had already given it a name.
I learned, at one point, that Kananaskis meant ‘man with axe in head’. This turns out to be no more true than that Kennedy means ‘man with bullet in head’. The Cree fellow received an axe blow to the head, yes, apparently in an argument over a woman. And he recovered from it. But that’s not what his name meant. Actually, that’s not even what his name was, not quite: it was Kineahkis. Which meant (still means) ‘one who is grateful’. What was he grateful for? Being alive. Specifically, surviving the axe blow to his head – he changed his name to that after that event, I have read.
There’s another place name that merits mention: Nakiska. This is the name that was given to the ski area on Mount Allan where the 1988 downhill events were held. (This ski area is still there, and it’s a nice ski area, but it’s sad that it really ate the lunch of Fortress Mountain, the ski area I learned to ski at – a ski area without a huge vertical but with some lovely terrain, a lot of open bowl skiing, but much farther down the valley.) Nakiska means ‘meeting place’. In Nakoda? Ah, no. In Cree again. There aren’t any Cree living around Kananaskis, but I guess the marketing department thought the name sounded really good. I seem to recall that the Nakoda reaction to it at the time was more along the line of Kismyass, but…