On Manitoulin Island, many place names reflect the original titles given to them by the First Nations peoples. They identified many locations based on the appearance of a landmark. By describing the area, travelers could have an easier time finding where they had to be. However, many place names also tell the stories of Indigenous legends.
Many visitors wonder about the origins of “Manitoulin.” It comes to us through the English and French-language interpretations of the Indigenous name of the region. Manitoulin reflects the Creation and spiritual beliefs of the first peoples who called the Island home!
Where Do We Get The Name Manitoulin Island?
Manitoulin Island is the Anglicized version of the name Manidoowaaling (ᒪᓂᑝᐙᓕᓐᒃ), which means “cave of the spirit” in Anishinaabemowin (the language of the Ojibwe). Three Indigenous cultures, called the Anishinaabe or “People of the Three Fires,” lived on and around the Island; this was a loose confederation formed by the distinct Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi tribes. It was the centre of an area called Mnidoo Mnis, and Odawa term meaning “Island of the Great Spirit.”
Local Indigenous legends tell of the Great Spirit Kitche Manitou (sometimes written as Gitche Manitou), the creator of the Island, who used the best pieces of the world when making it. After creation, the Island drifted to the coast of the North Shore, where Kitche Manitou secured the island in place. He proclaimed it Manitou Minis or “Island of the Great Spirit.”
Some traditions told of an underwater cave around Manitowaning Bay where Kitche Manitou lived; others described it as an underwater passage the Great Spirit used for travel. A powerful spirit named Mishebeshu (which translates to “Great Lynx”; this was a figure of the underworld in Anishinaabe mythology) was also said to use an underground passage stretching from Lake Huron to Lake Superior. The legends of the den give us the name used for the area today!
For What Is Manitoulin Island Known?
Manitoulin Island has more names for itself around Canada and the world! One fact almost everyone knows is that Manitoulin is the world’s largest freshwater island, meaning it is the largest island within a lake anywhere in the world. Spanning the Island are many traditions, with the six Indigenous reserves and the farmers who colonized the area carving out unique culinary and artistic traditions. One of the reserves, the Wikwemikong, is the country’s only unceded reserve.
The town of Manitowaning is one of the oldest settlements in Canada, beginning as a Jesuit mission on what is Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory. The Jesuits called the Island Isle de Ste-Marie, but the mission – and the name they gave the island – did not last long. Manitowaning also reflects the Indigenous creation beliefs: it means “Den of the Great Spirit” in Ojibwe!