The U.S. Board on Geographic Names unanimously voted this week to rename North and South Suicide Peaks in the Chugach front range to be North and South Yuyanq’ Ch’ex, a Dena’ina Athabascan name that translates to “breath from above” or “heaven’s breath.”
The change was the result of a two-year effort that included an online petition with hundreds of signatures, a letter of support from the Alaska Legislature and persistent effort by Bill Pagaran, president of a local nonprofit dedicated to suicide prevention among Alaska Native teens called Carry The Cure.
“I about jumped out of my skin when I first heard that it was passed yesterday morning,” said Pagaran, reached by phone Friday. “I shouted, I cried. I went on a nice hike.”
Pagaran, who is Tlingit, first started working on a proposal to rename the peaks southeast of Anchorage in summer 2020. He’d traveled around the state for over two decades as part of his suicide prevention work, particularly in Western Alaska, where suicide rates have been among the highest.
For many of the families he’s spoken to who have lost loved ones to suicide, even the mention of the name can bring up the pain they’ve experienced, he said.
”Having a mountain that glorifies the name right in our largest city in Alaska is offensive,” he said.
It’s unknown exactly how Suicide Peaks got its earlier name. The U.S. Geological Survey claims “Suicide Peak(s)” was a local name first documented in 1951 and with an otherwise unknown origin, according to David Reamer, a local historian who writes a regular column for the Daily News.
One common explanation for the name came from local railroad workers who viewed the peaks as dangerous, according to Pagaran.
Pagaran said through conversations with other Native elders, because it seemed that the original Dena’ina place name for the peaks had been lost, “the proper thing was to get the name from the Dena’ina people.”
Yuyanq’ Ch’ex, pronounced “you-yonk chekh,” was chosen by Helen Dick, an elder and one of the only fluent Dena’ina speakers currently alive in Alaska, according to Pagaran.
“The idea was to have a Dena’ina name to cancel the spirit of death over Alaska,” Pagaran wrote in an email Friday. “Life over death, because words have power.”
The initial proposal was rejected by the Alaska Historical Commission in part because at the time, Pagaran hadn’t demonstrated enough community support for the renaming. The initiative also encountered some opposition from the Mountaineering Club of Alaska, which didn’t believe the proposed name change met the threshold laid out in the federal government’s geographic naming principles.
Pagaran said he hoped that the name change would start important conversations about suicide prevention efforts in Alaska, and help raise awareness about the problem.
Alaska’s suicide rate has long been among the highest in the country. Alaska’s average annual adolescent suicide rate from 2016 to 2019 was about three times higher than the national average.
During 2019, suicide was the leading overall cause of death for Alaska youths and young adults ages 15 to 24.
“I think that enough people will hear about the name change that it will create an opportunity to speak about the reasons for the change, and to bring proper awareness and proper context,” Pagaran said.
The Alaska Legislature this week sent a letter in support of the name change. In the letter, members of the Legislature wrote that changing the name shows that officials take suicide awareness and prevention seriously.
The renaming is part of a broader local, statewide and national effort to restore place names to their Native roots.
This fall, 26 places in Alaska received a new name as part of a federal initiative to remove a derogatory word for Indigenous women from hundreds of place names across the country.
In 2015, the Interior Department restored the name of Denali, previously Mount McKinley, to reflect the Koyukon Athabascan word for the mountain. A year later, voters in the city of Barrow decided to change the community’s official name to Utqiaġvik, its Iñupiaq name.
If you or someone you know are dealing with a mental health crisis or suicidal thoughts, you can call the 24/7 Alaska Careline at 988, or 1-877-266-HELP at any time. For more information on the Alaska Suicide Prevention Council and suicide in Alaska, visit health.alaska.gov/suicideprevention.
Reporter Annie Berman is a full-time reporter for the ADN based covering health care. Her position is supported by Report for America, which is working to fill gaps in reporting across America and to place a new generation of journalists in community news organizations around the country. Report for America, funded by both private and public donors, covers up to 50% of a reporter’s salary. It’s up to Anchorage Daily News to find the other half, through local community donors, benefactors, grants or other fundraising activities.
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