The game farm house was at the foot of a mountain with a large cliff at the top. I spent my adolescence with that face hanging above and behind me.

If you’ve ever driven to Banff from Calgary you will have seen it. It’s the first mountain on the north side of the valley. The cliff face across the top is vaguely reminiscent of a yam that has been – not cut, rather broken in half. Here is a photo of it.

Climbers call the mountain “the Yam.” But they don’t call it “the Yam” because it looks like a yam. They call it “the Yam” because it’s Mount Yamnuska.

There are a few things in the area called Yamnuska: touring companies, a summer camp, such like. They are all named after the mountain. It cuts quite a figure. It is very popular with rock climbers; there are hundreds of routes up that cliff face. My dad bought a book detailing many of the routes. I found it fascinating. I loved looking through it, imagining climbing up.

I have never actually done any rock climbing. (My father most certainly hasn’t either.)

But you can climb up to the top of Yamnuska without ropes or risk of falling. You just go up the trail up through the trees on the lower front and, when you get to the part where the cliff is, go around the back way. Only the front is a cliff, you see; the back is quite accessible. Don’t take the mountain just at face value.

I have hiked Mount Yamnuska. But I have never gotten all the way to the very top, just because the group I was with didn’t want to or didn’t have the time. I should go back and do it. Unlike many of the things from my childhood, the mountain is still there. And probably isn’t going anywhere for a while.

So what is this word Yamnuska? Let’s start with how it’s said. It follows English spelling. English spelling can be weird at times, but at least we know it doesn’t do things like, say, put “m” and “n” sounds together at the start of the same syllable. The Yam is easy. The ka is also easy. The nus rhymes with plus. I’ve heard some people say it “yam-noose-ka,” presumably because they think they shouldn’t say it as though it’s an English word, although the spelling is as it is to match English spelling. People leap to conclusions, and sometimes the conclusion is at the bottom of a cliff. But wherever the fault may be, there’s no sense in assigning blame; it’s something we’re conditioned to as English speakers: favour the marked. Don’t take things at face value.

But where did this word come from? The local language: Nakoda, also called Stoney. The Stoneys were the people for whom my parents worked and on whose reserve (“Indian Reservation”) I spent much of my childhood. Now, if you’re a language person, you will be aware that the sounds that make up one language are often not exact matches to the sounds that make up another one. So you may expect that our English pronunciation of Yamnuska is not quite the way it’s said in Stoney. And this is true.

Actually, it’s not even spelled that way in Stoney. In Stoney (Nakoda – do you see the resemblance to Dakota and Lakota?), it’s Îyâ Mnathka. The circumflexes indicate nasalization. The a represents a low-central vowel, like the a in bar. Stoney has two apical voiceless fricatives, spelled th and s, but they’re really in the spaces between English th, s, and sh, so Stoney s sounds sort of like “sh” and Stoney th is less toothy than English th. Also, while Yamnuska has three syllables with the stress in the middle, Îyâ Mnathka has four, with the stresses on the first and last. So what you think you see at first is actually quite different from what really is there. But the real not-face-value of Yamnuska is quite different from the jumped-to-a-conclusion not-face-value.

The name Îyâ Mnathka, by the way, means ‘flat-faced rock’. Which is pretty much right on, although actually there’s a mountain across the valley that has a similar cliff that’s flatter in the face, Barrier Mountain. (But that one is less spectacular; frankly, it’s more distinctive in the side view from Exshaw: it looks like a nose.)

But Mount Yamnuska is not the official name, nor is Îyâ Mnathka. Of course that’s the name that the people who have been there longer gave it, but the invading Europeans saw fit to give it a different name: Mount John Laurie.

If you’re from Calgary, you’ll recognize John Laurie. There is a boulevard running around the base of the nose of Nose Hill called John Laurie Boulevard. Now guess how it’s pronounced.

If you said “Like ‘John’ and like ‘Laurie’,” you’re right. But some students I knew at the University of Calgary – and who knows how many other people in Calgary – said the Laurie as like Laurier or Laurié, i.e., like “Laurie, eh.” Because apparently, being a Name and all, it couldn’t be said just like you’d normally say it; it must not be English, the John notwithstanding. Favour the marked; don’t take it at face value. Another bit of conclusion-jumping to add to the scree pile at the bottom of the cliff.

So who was John Laurie? John Lee Laurie was born in Ontario and moved west as an adult to teach in Calgary. He became familiar with the Stoney people and volunteered to work as secretary for the Indian Association of Alberta. He put a lot of time in as an advocate for the causes and rights of Indians (we now often say First Nations), and later compiled history of the Stoneys for the Glenbow Foundation. He died in 1959 and the mountain was officially named after him in 1961.

So it wasn’t really the invading Europeans trampling over the people who were there before, not quite. It was more of a way of honouring someone who did something meaningful, and quite recently at that. Again, the real story is not the face value and is also not the not-face-value you might assume. But anyway, everyone still calls the mountain Yamnuska; I’d wager that not five percent of people who know Yamnuska know its “official” name.

Here’s another nice picture of the mountain, a painting by Roland Rollinmud, a really excellent artist and old friend of my family: www.harbeck.ca/cww/cww_080305.html (you will see that it’s featured in a column written by my dad). Have another look at it, try to get a grip on where I’m coming from. Have you stopped to wonder about the geology of the mountain?

We know that, as a general rule, rocks on top are newer than rocks underneath because, well, that’s how things pile up. But what caused the cliff face to be there? A thing called the McConnell Thrust Fault. The shifting that happened because of this fault brought the rock on one side from a ways farther up the valley (I doubt it happened just one morning, but I do like the image that brings; here’s a more useful image: myrockymountainwindow.com/2012/03/05/wall-of-stone/mybuild/#main). The fault is right at the base of the cliff. The cliff is made of Cambrian limestone, hard, prone to forming cliffs, 500 million years old. The rock at the base of the cliff is Cretaceous, sedimentary, soft, 80 million years old.

Yup, the upper part – the cliff part – is older, way older. Again, things are not always what they may seem on the face of it. The older prevails, though you need to get over the younger part to get to it. No need to assign blame… but the fault remains.

5 responses to “Yamnuska

  1. Speaking of “face value”, you didn’t mention that Nose Hill is the nose on an anthropomorphic map of Napi, the creator of the Blackfoot Indians. Some other parts of his body and that of his wife are in Alberta and northern Montana. You can see a list of them at

    I learned about body-part maps from the linguist Dan Moonhawk Alford (deceased) and the anthropologist Stan Knowlton. Many of Moonhawk’s webpages are still maintained. You can find them at

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