You might have seen news pieces recently about a small bit of land on Mars that has been named for Winnipeg. NASA is currently exploring Mars with the Curiosity rover and for some reason the officials in control of this project decided that the small piece of land that is being explored in detail should be called Winnipeg.

It is believed that the exploration of Winnipeg on Mars could end up telling us if there was or even is life on the planet in some form. Although nobody knows for sure why NASA chose the name Winnipeg, it is believed that it has something to do with news articles a few years ago that reported that Winnipeg was experiencing a deep freeze and the temperature for a while was colder than on Mars.

The Curiosity rover is actually studying the rocks and environment on Winnipeg, Mars, in a place called the Murray Formation to establish how they were formed and what they are made of. Although NASA is not saying, they are trying to figure out if there are precious metals that could be mined. My guess is that there must be a lot of interest in this exploration for resource-based stakes.

What the NASA people probably didn’t know is that Winnipeg is originally a Cree word that means muddy body of water. Before I ever heard of Winnipeg, Manitoba, I only identified the term (as we pronounce it in Cree, Weenaybek) in reference to the great James Bay. As a matter of fact everyone I knew up the James Bay coast referred to the bay as Weenaybek. Later, when I moved further along as a child in my education I was surprised to find out that there was actually a Canadian city named Winnipeg.

Our Cree Elders have in the past referred to the bay as Weenaybek and they still do today. Everyone on the James Bay coast refers to James Bay as Weenaybek rather than its English name. As a matter of fact one of the returning Cree boys from Attawapiskat who was dragged off to World War I in 1917 was deposited in Winnipeg on his return to Canada. When asked where he wanted to be returned to on arriving back he replied that he wanted to go to Weenaybek so military officials transported him by train to Winnipeg, Manitoba. It took him some months to figure out how to get back to what he knew as Weenaybek.

Many cities, towns, lakes, rivers and places in Canada carry original Native names. Obviously, this has to do with the fact that we were the first people on this land mass and we already had place names from coast to coast. We had settlements, hunting and gathering lands and we travelled the lakes and rivers as our highways. It is fitting that our presence is still very much felt across Canada as we were here in the beginning and we still live, hunt, fish and gather on our traditional lands right across this country.

The best example of Aboriginal names is in the name of our capital city – Ottawa, named for a group of Aboriginal people who were traders. The city is also located in the province of Ontario, an Aboriginal word that refers to lakes. The name of our country Canada is also an Aboriginal word from the Iroquoian language meaning “village.”

I find it amusing that a little part of Mars has been named for the Cree word Weenaybek or Winnipeg, which means of course muddy water. Perhaps there is something to this after all. Maybe, just maybe, NASA’s Curiosity rover exploration will lead to the discovery of water. At the very least we as First Nation people can be proud of the fact that we have a connection to Mars. Maybe we always had that link.