BETHEL -- Gov. Bill Walker has made it official: He is changing the name of a census area in Western Alaska from that of a slave owner who never set foot there to that of the region's tallest mountains.
Walker announced Thursday that he had sent a letter to John Thompson, director of the U.S. Census Bureau, stating the state's intention to change what had been the Wade Hampton Census Area to the Kusilvak Census Area.
"The original naming of this Census District was completed over a century ago without the knowledge and consent of the area's residents, and further, the current name has no connection to the culture or history of our land or people," Walker wrote. "As such, I find it inappropriate to continue the use of the current name, and from this time forward will instead recognize this district as the 'Kusilvak Census Area' to honor the wishes of its residents."
The Census Bureau has said that the state of Alaska can initiate the name change by showing consensus for a new name. Once the bureau receives notification of the new name, it will change its publications, the bureau has said.
The area stretches along the coast of the Bering Sea and up the lower Yukon River and includes the village of Hooper Bay -- the region's biggest -- as well as 19 other villages and seasonal communities. It also includes the Kusilvak Mountains.
The tribe and city government in Hooper Bay passed a resolution supporting a name change to Kusilvak. Sen. Lisa Murkowski as well as a number of state legislators also have expressed support for a change.
Wade Hampton was a plantation master and Confederate general propelled to the governor's office in South Carolina after the Civil War, through a terror campaign aimed at stifling the vote of former slaves. He later became a U.S. senator. His son-in-law was a territorial judge in Nome who named a new mining district after him. The area first appeared in census publications in 1920 as a recorder district.
Myron Naneng, president of the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents and originally from Hooper Bay, had pushed for the change.
"One more step moving forward to make it happen," Naneng said in an email this week to numerous parties.
His brother, William Naneng, a Hooper Bay leader, used the Yup'ik word for thank you in his reply.
"Quyana!" he wrote.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing