At a spot along the Anchorage’s Cook Inlet coastline known as Point Woronzof, a bit of Indigenous history has been reclaimed.
A decorative signpost ceremoniously dedicated last week displays the traditional Dena’ina name for the site, Nuch’ishtunt, meaning “the place protected from the wind.”
The signpost along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail is the fourth Indigenous name marker installed in the city as part of a project managed by the Anchorage Park Foundation, in cooperation with numerous other entities. The project is a local example of what has been a statewide, national and international movement to reassert Indigenous names for geographic sites.
For scholar Aaron Leggett, who is also president of Native Village of Eklutna and who has been a prime mover of the project, the new trail marker is part of a progression.
“When I grew up in Anchorage, there was no talk of Dena’ina people or certainly Dena’ina place names,” Leggett said at the Aug. 18 dedication ceremony.
Successive boomtown population influxes that made Anchorage the state’s largest city obscured the original residents’ presence, Leggett said. He came to understand that when he was 19, working at the Alaska Native Heritage Center and meeting Native people from elsewhere in the state, he said.
“I told them I was Dena’ina, and they said, ‘Well, what’s that?’ And then they said, ‘Well, where’s your village?’ and I said, ‘We’re from here,’” he said at the dedication ceremony. It took a lot of explaining at the time, he said. “Some of them who had grown up in Anchorage said, ‘Well, I didn’t know Native people lived here.’ I said, ‘Well, we’re still here. We’ve never left.’”
The Anchorage interpretive sign program helps put the city “on the cutting edge of indigenous names recognition,” and is serving as a template for other communities where people want to some something similar, Leggett said.
There are plans for 28 more signposts to be erected around Anchorage, said Beth Nordlund, executive director of the Anchorage Park Foundation.
“We will keep going until we can recognize – we all can recognize – that we are walking on Dena’ina land,” Nordlund said at the ceremony.
One of the most famous examples of the movement toward resurrecting Indigenous place names – whether through interpretive signs like those along Anchorage’s trails or in official geographic designations — concerns North America’s tallest peak.
In 2015, President Obama and then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell used their administrative powers to make formal for the federal government what had, in Alaska, long been the commonly used and official Alaska state government name for the mountain: Denali. The name is from the Koyukon people whose homeland is closest to the peak and translates to “the high one” or “the great one.”
The Dena’ina have a similar name with the same meaning, Leggett said. Related, low-lying Mount Susitna, a well-known feature on the Anchorage skyline, bears the Dena’ina name Dghelishla, meaning “little mountain,” he said.
Another example is the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, which is now officially named for the ridge where it is located, Troth Yeddha’ in the Lower Tanana language. Though the ridge previously held no official government name, it was traditionally a site for gathering wild potatoes; Troth Yeddha’ translates roughly to “potato ridge.” The name designation won federal approval in 2013.
A general European practice is to name places after people, Leggett noted. Point Woronzof, for example, was named for a Russian aristocrat who served as ambassador to England under Czarina Catherine the Great’s rule, according to University of Alaska Anchorage historian Steve Haycox.
In contrast, Leggett said, Indigenous place names are almost always descriptive.
Two signs posted in the Anchorage project, one at Westchester Lagoon and one at a park on the east side of town, display the Dena’ina name for Chester Creek, Chanshtnu, which means “grass creek.” The East Anchorage park itself bears that name. The sign at Potter Marsh on the south edge of Anchorage, dedicated on Indigenous People’s Day last October, displays the name Hkaditali, which describes the driftwood that gathers on the tidal flats. Tikahtnu, the Dena’ina name for the inlet later named after British sea captain and explorer James Cook, means “big water river.”
Sometimes those descriptions carry warnings that are worth heeding, Leggett said.
The Dena’ina name Nen Ghiłgedi, meaning “rotten land,” was used for an area that modern Anchorage residents call Turnagain. That residential neighborhood was heavily damaged by the massive magnitude-9.2 earthquake of 1964. It was a hot spot for liquefaction, a phenomenon in which the soil acts like liquid as it collapses. Liquefaction in the area swallowed up houses and caused deaths.
On a national level, the Department of the Interior, through the U.S. Geological Survey, is working on a program not just to restore Indigenous names but remove names that are racist or otherwise considered derogatory.
A recent result in Alaska was the USGS decision to change its official name for what had been known as Chugach National Park’s Suicide Peaks. That name was considered unfortunate in a state where youth suicide rates are extremely high. Advocates came up with North Yuyanq’ Ch’ex and South Yuyanq’ Ch’ex, meaning “heaven’s breath.”
Restored Indigenous place names are on signs and official maps outside of the United States as well. In Canada, for example, signs erected in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and traditional names have been restored or are being restored in sites like Iqaluit, the Nunavut territorial capital that was once called Frobisher Bay. In Australia, a campaign similar to that in the U.S. has been underway to restore Indigenous names and remove modern offensive names.
The process has not always been smooth.
The narrowly approved 2016 decision to use the Inupiaq name Utqiagvik for the northernmost U.S. community also known as Barrow was met with resistance and even a lawsuit. And the USGS decision in 2015 to formally designate the Gwich’in names Teedriinjik River and Ch’idriinjik River, meaning “shimmering river and “heart river,” for two tributaries of the Chandalar River system was not supported by the state.
There is current dissent over a proposal to designate an Ahtna name for a spot in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough known as Lion’s Head.
The Alaska Historical Commission recently tabled the proposal to use the name “Natsede’aayi,” which means “rock that is standing,” for the spot 49 miles northeast of Palmer and at the junction of Caribou Creek and the Matanuska River. There were numerous questions and objections, including a resolution in opposition passed in June by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough planning commission, said Alaska State Historian Katie Ringsmuth. Putting the proposal on hold is “really just giving everybody enough time to properly inform the public” about it and gather input, she said.
Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.