You’ve all seen this word around a lot, right? There’s the creek, the river, the conservation area, the dental clinic, the golf club, the cemetery, the shopping mall… it’s all over the place. So, where does it come from and what does it mean? I’ve been curious for quite a while.

City of Kingston publications define Katarokwi in Mohawk as “a place where there is clay” or “where the limestone is.” They also report that for the French and Algonquins, the word meant “great meeting place.”

A few things confused me about this. First, clay and limestone are not the same thing, so how could it be unclear which the word refers to? And second, Iroquoian languages (including Huron and Mohawk) and Algonquian languages (including Algonquin and Mississauga/Anishinaabe) are not related. If a word comes from one language, how can it have a meaning in another? For example, “Montreal” is a French word meaning “royal mountain,” and while it may be a “great meeting place” for lots of Anglos as well, that’s not its etymological meaning.

So I thought I would look into it a little further. And just about at this time, I got a call out of the blue from an old friend, Roy Wright. Roy is a linguist, particularly of Iroquoian languages. So I immediately started grilling the poor guy. And he said, it’s a Huron word in origin. This was a Huron place when it was named. And, he said, it isn’t about clay or limestone: it’s about mud. I said, what? Whereupon he pointed me to a 1751 Huron grammar by a missionary named Pierre Potier. Here’s one of the relevant bits:

Clear as mud, isn’t it? But what we want to look at is the third line down:

a’taro. il y a une terre boueuse, fangeuse (parcequ’elle est dans un lieu humide)


a’taro. There is muddy land (because it is in a wet place)

Note the hook under the a, which, Roy explains, means it is pronounced “ga” (Mohawk uses “ka” instead). So what we are looking at is “ga’taro.” The apostrophe between the a and the t indicates a glottal stop (as in “hot dog” where we usually replace the t sound with a stop of our breath). Linguists divide the word usually spelled Cataraqui into several parts: Ka-tar-o-hkwi. “Ka” shows it’s a noun,” “tar” (or “itar“) means mud, “o” means to be wet or in water. “Hkwi” is a suffix that helps to make “a’taro” into a place name.*

Now this makes sense geographically, it seems to me, in that when the French came and built a fort where the K-Rock Centre is now, they took the Huron name for the place, Cataraqui. And that area, we know, the Inner Harbour, was very swampy and muddy. It only became really solid land much later on when it was all filled in by the railways and so on. So the question is, then, why would people say that the name Cataraqui references clay or limestone? My first impulse was to think, well, who would want to admit their place name meant “swamp”? We build stuff out of limestone and clay, but mud, in western cultures at least, doesn’t have positive connotations.

Moving along, I checked in with Nathan Brinklow, at Tyendinaga, who speaks and teaches Mohawk. He was dubious of the “gathering place” definition: “Toronto has had the same thing happen,” he wrote, “whereby some people talk about the ‘place for friendship / meeting place.’ Atorón:to (from which the name presumably comes into English) is literally ‘logs in the water.’  The former definition obviously fits better with the ‘friendly city’ branding, but while the root for friendship atenhro sounds close when listening in English, they’re not remotely the same in Mohawk.” OK, fair enough — but then Nathan consulted other Mohawk speakers and reported that “itar” means clay, not mud.  So, Nathan says, “the connections to limestone or mud are non-existent as far as I can see.”

Are you still with me? We have two experts with different opinions. In the second volley of discussion, however, Roy had a hunch that is pretty interesting. He points out that both mud and clay are really important in the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) creation story. The muskrat made “Turtle Island” by diving down and collecting mud to pile on the back of a turtle, and the early people were made of clay. So Roy thought that if he went through a bunch of early transcriptions of these stories in Iroquoian languages, he could confirm that in fact there is another word entirely for clay. But when he looked these sources up, it turns out that the Haudenosaunee word for clay (orawate, Roy says) is never used — instead the words for mud (tar) and “dirty foam” appear. His theory is that those who translated into English, and then perhaps back into Mohawk in the way that languages change each other, just translated the Haudenosaunee word “mud” into “clay” in English because… well, it sounded nicer. “I would imagine it’s the English way of beautifying the language,” he said. And his final word to date? “More field work is needed… e.g. with Huron or Iroquois potters.” Stay tuned.

Do we at least know now to spell this word? Preferred use in the Kingston Indigenous community these days is Katarokwi. The French spelled it Cataraqui or Katarakouy. Nathan says “Ken’tarókwen” would be a good modern Mohawk spelling. Roy would opt for Ka-i7tar-o-hkw-i  as a linguistic rendition, “Gunh darrohgwun” for a phonetic sense of it, and Ka’tarohkwi for daily use. My own feeling is that as spelling wouldn’t have been an issue for the people that left us the name, the most important thing is to think about what it means to use the word today (for example, is it tribute or appropriation for settlers to use it?) as part of how we address the future of settler-Indigenous relations in and to this place.  

Speaking of which: this is Mississauga and Algonquin territory too. Did they have a different name for it? I had noticed that local activist Krista L’Amour Flute had been using the name “Akadanakwig.” She told me that “a local Nish speaker translated it as ‘from here and beyond,’ in reference to the water systems.” She had first heard it from Bob Lovelace who teaches Indigenous Studies at Queen’s. Bob has been looking into place names with a friend at Ardoch Algonquin First Nation, and they have found a nineteenth-century Ojibway (Anishinaabe) dictionary in which Kingston is called “Àkàdanakwìng” or “Gaa-danakiìng.” As for its meaning, Bob wrote, “My best guess is that Aka is a form of Aki which means ‘land’ and adana is a similarity to ‘town.'” Interesting. So I passed Bob’s information on to Alan Corbiere, a teacher of Anishinaabe, a language closely related to Algonquin (Alan is also an amazing historian — check out the exhibit he has co-curated at the ROM, Anishinaabeg: Art and Power — on until November). And Alan said,

it looks like they just took the word Cataraqui/Katarokwi and “Ojibwe-ized” it.  There are no longer any “r’s” in our language.  So we employ this strategy of replacing consonant sounds that are not in our language with ones that are in our language. In Ojibwe R usually gets replaced with N. So taking Cataraqui/ Katarokwi and replacing the R with an N renders it Gaa-danakii or Gaa-danokwii. 

The Mississauga/Anishinaabe people came here after the Hurons, so it kind of makes sense that they took up the name, and like the French and English speakers did, adapted it so it felt comfortable in their mouths.

As you can see, this is all very provisional and complicated. But isn’t it interesting? Many many thanks to my generous sources. I hope you will be willing to play in the mud with me for a little longer. All advice and leads welcome from others as well.

— Laura Murray

1685 French map of Katarokouy, detail

*Nathan says “kwi” could mean “taken out of” in which case the name could mean “clay (or mud) taken out of water.”


Leave a Reply