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Alaska's indigenous languages map gets updated, for first time in 30 years

Ben Anderson

In 1974, Michael Krauss published a map of the traditional territories of Alaska's indigenous languages and peoples. It wasn't the first of its kind, but it was far and away the most accurate, based on firsthand accounts of individual languages and the boundaries of where one ended and another began. Krauss updated his map in 1982, and it has since become the standard for gauging the traditional areas where Alaska Native languages were spoken.

Now, nearly 30 years later, the Alaska Native Language Center (ANLC) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has released a new update of Krauss's well-known map, which hangs in classrooms and offices around the state. The new map utilized new digital technology to make the information more accessible and more comprehensive than the old-fashioned ink-and-paper approach that Krauss was forced to use.

"The other (Krauss) maps were done in a traditional sort of cartography approach," said Gary Holton, director of the Alaska Native Language Archive and a linguistics professor at the ANLC. "This map was created entirely digitally. We digitized the language boundaries, we digitized the locations of the village boundaries." All of which, Holton said, helped make the information on the map more accurate, and to allow for easier editing and updating in the future.

"Before, it was so difficult to make any changes," Holton said. Krauss' original map was printed in a technology that involved glass plates housed outside of Boston, according to Holton. Updating it, he said, "required some very old technology." Now, Holton said, a new version can be edited and created in the space of day if needed.

Despite the differing methods, Holton said that the new map is derived from Krauss' original research. "We very much started from Krauss’s original," he said. "Even though it’s changed from paper to digital, I think of it as the third edition."

Given that the original map tracked traditional boundaries for languages -- some that have been that way for centuries -- what could change in the space of thirty years? While the main goal was digitizing the information for ease of use and accessibility, and a few small changes were made to the geographical regions, it also presented an opportunity to update a few more details.

"There were several things that motivated the update," Holton said. "Probably the primary thing was that some of the names of the languages had changed -- not that they’ve become wrong, but they’ve become outdated, or derogatory, or perjorative." This includes a shift away from "Aleut" to "Unangax̂" in the Aleutian chain, among others.

Krauss' original map also included imagery that conveyed the number of children in each village that spoke their native language, which has been replaced in this new version with clickable data for each village. The digitization, Holton said, has allowed for more data while simultaneously streamlining the appearance of the map itself.

One of the most interesting aspects of the map is that it represents only traditional language boundaries, not contemporary ones. The most obvious representation of this is the presence of Eyak on the map, a language whose last native speaker died in 2008.

"We have to visualize this map as kind of a map of traditional language territories, and that’s the only kind of map that makes sense," Holton said. "Because if you think about migration and where people are now, the number of Yup’ik speakers in Anchorage exceeds the number in Bethel. That’s not traditional territory for Yup’ik. I think it only makes sense to talk about traditional, pre-massive-migration sort of territory."

Even the traditional boundaries were a bit of a moving target, and researchers had to use their best judgment in determining what boundaries should go where. Holton notes that even though the Eyak territory ranges into  the area of Cordova, Alutiiq/Sugpiaq speakers populated that region heavily beginning in the mid-19th century. 

"Ironically," Holton said, "you have something today called the Eyak coroporation, and it’s mostly composed of Sugpiaq."

Holton admits they gave Eyak "a little bit of leeway" in its territory. "You can argue it's a little bit subjective," he said.

Maps are available for purchase for $15 from the ANLC, and a high quality version is currently available online at the website. An interactive version should be online by Aug. 1 at Alaskool.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com