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Feds recognize Native names of major Alaska river system

  • Author: Asaf Shalev
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published October 11, 2015

A major river system in Interior Alaska formerly designated Chandalar will now be known by its two Native names, Teedriinjik River and Ch'idriinjik River.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names decided last month to officially restore the Gwich'in originals despite a recommendation by the Alaska Historical Commission against the change.

"It is somewhat unusual for the U.S. board to go against the state names authority's decision," said Jennifer Runyon, a senior staffer at the federal body. "But the U.S. board found the argument for the change more convincing."

Teedriinjik, which means shimmering river, refers to the main stream and its northern tributary. Ch'idriinjik, or heart river -- in association with a nearby mountain -- is another tributary of the same Arctic river system.

The two names have been in use for over a thousand years by the local Athabascan people, according to the application submitted last year by Edward Alexander, the former Second Chief of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich'in Tribal Government. The official adoption of the names would "help revitalize Gwich'in culture and language," he wrote.

Alexander described the federal decision as "very good news" in a recent Facebook post, adding that he is "thankful for all the work of our elders in the villages who began this work." He could not be reached for additional comment for this story.

Teedriinjik and Ch'idriinjik represent the latest examples in a big year for Native place names in Alaska. In July, Wade Hampton Census Area, which was named after a slaveholding Civil War general, became Kusilvak Census Area. Then in August, the Obama administration announced that the Koyukon Athabascan name Denali would take the place of Mount McKinley, after decades of campaigning by Alaskans.

The decision on Denali was made at the White House, but name changes are typically made by the more-obscure U.S. Board on Geographic Names. Operating within the U.S. Geological Survey, the board is made up of representatives from a variety of federal agencies.

The federal body has a "conservative" approach when considering name changes because of the risk of causing confusion, Runyon said. But widespread local use of a proposed name can help overcome the reticence to alter official geographic designations, she said.

Tanana Chiefs Conference, which represents 37 federally recognized tribal governments in the region, endorsed the formal adoption of Teedriinjik and Ch'idriinjik. The Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments also sent a letter of support later in the renaming process.

"The only people who use these areas regularly are Alaska Native communities," said Runyon, who is a research geographer by profession. The name Chandalar is about 150 years old and "a blip compared to the Native history of the name," she added.

The U.S. board is also considering proposals by Alexander to recognize the Native names of nearby Birch Creek and Beaver Creek but a legal technicality has stalled that decision.

Last November, the Alaska Historical Commission, under former Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, voted 6-1 against restoring the Native names citing lack of evidence for widespread use and a concern over the difficulty in pronunciation.

The sole commissioner who supported the change at the state level was vice chair Jonathon Ross, the Alaska Native representative.

"I believed (Alexander) did have enough evidence to support the application and the feds did too," Ross said. "I really want to see more the Native names represented. That's my official position on the commission."

Commissioner Michael Hawfield, who voted with the majority, said the proposal sparked a "long and interesting" discussion and that all the commissioners have "great sympathy for using Native place names when it makes sense."

Last year, the commission supported the proposal to recognize the Gwich'in name Draanjik River for the body of water formerly known as Black River in the eastern Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area.

The name Chandalar, however, had gained "historical significance" over the past hundred years, Hawfield said, adding that it is easier to pronounce for more Alaskans.

He also said there was no empirical evidence regarding which name is most common for the river system and that the commissioners had to rely on their own familiarity with the state and its people. "A great deal of our thinking was guided by our knowledge of the use of the river," he said.

"It was just too big a change for a large number of Alaskans who are not indigenous," said Hawfield, who represents the Alaska Historical Society on the commission. "It might cause all sorts of unwanted pushback as being too politically correct."

Ultimately, whatever opposition the new names may engender, the state accedes to federal authority on matters of naming, Hawfield said.

The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manage the river system, are required to use official names. The authoritative topographic maps published by the USGS will also reflect the name change. Hiking guides, hunting clubs, books, brochures and aviation guides will all likely follow, according to Runyon.

The name Chandalar evolved from a 19th century French phrase, according to the Dictionary of Alaska Place Names. French employees of the Hudson's Bay Company named the river system "Gens de Large," or "nomadic people," after the local people they encountered, the dictionary says. Those words evolved over time to Chandalar.

James Kari, a leading linguist of Athabascan languages, praised the name change, saying that Chandalar is a derivative of "French Slavey jargon."

"Native place names are pretty significant for language preservation," Kari said. "The Denali name change has pushed (preservation) forward but things move slowly."

Correction: This story originally misquoted James Kari as saying Chandalar is derivative of "French slavery jargon." Kari actually said "French Slavey jargon," a reference to a language spoken in northwest Canada.

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