McKinley to Denali sure, but not all Alaska place-name changes make sense

Most Alaskans I know applauded the recent announcement that Mount McKinley will heretofore be identified as Denali on official maps. As a symbolic gesture, a nod to Native Americans who gave the continent's highest peak a name long before another name appeared on a map, it was hard to beat.

Restoring Native American names to geographic features is trending. A flurry of name changes has taken place in Alaska this summer. This raises important questions. How will we know when we've gone too far, and is any Native American place name preferable to one concocted after Columbus sailed the ocean blue?

Shortly after President Obama authorized the switch back to Denali, the Alaska Historical Commission, the state's geographic names board, received an application from Dr. James Kari to rename a small creek that drains into Eklutna Lake.

Kari wants to replace Thachkatnu Creek with ?ach Q'atnu Creek. The creek, better known as Twin Peaks Creek because of Chugach State Park's outdated sign, flows into Eklutna Lake just north of the campground and parking areas. Very few local residents use the name Thachkatnu, which is an anglicized version of a Dena'ina name meaning "Clay Hole Creek."

A growing trend

In April a ridge near Juneau was named Tlaxsatanjín, a Tlingit name proposed by Alaska Native languages professor Lance Twitchell for a feature that had no official name on maps. Twitchell "declined to offer a phonetic transliteration of the word," according to the article. He told a reporter, "We'll teach people how to say it."

Mount McKinley was renamed Denali in August. Whereas President William McKinley never set foot in Alaska and the honor was bestowed by a prospector who left the territory before winter set in, Denali was the name long used by the Koyukon people living north of the mountain. Native Americans residing west, south and east of the mountain, where it had other names, may have been disappointed.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names (USBGN) decided in September to officially restore the Gwich'in names to the Chandalar River and its middle fork. The former is now the Teedriinjik River, the latter the Ch'idriinjik River. These names were submitted by Edward Alexander, the former Second Chief of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich'in Tribal Government.


The USBGN is considering several other Alexander applications for rivers in interior Alaska. If approved, Beaver Creek would become Tseenjik River and Birch Creek would be the K'iidootinjik River. The Alaska Historical Commission voted 6-1 against renaming these two bodies of water citing a lack of evidence for widespread use and difficulty in pronunciation by non-Gwich'in speakers.

Naming the unpronounceable

Restoring the name ?ach Q'atnu to Thachkatnu Creek raises many of the same issues as other recent name changes, not the least of which is how it will be pronounced.

It's no small irony that the name Thachkatnu was submitted by Chugach State Park in 1984 in deference to the original inhabitants. Thachkatnu was then the commonly accepted spelling, just as Tanaina used to be how most people, including anthropologists, spelled Dena'ina.

Not quite satisfied, Kari, a linguist who specializes in Athabascan languages, wants to restore the name of the creek using the Upper Cook Inlet dialect of Dena'ina. Kari co-authored a presentation in 2013 entitled "Advancing Native Place Names in Alaska" at a conference of the Council of Geographic Names Authorities. He believes that "highly distorted spellings of Dena'ina place names diminish their effect for linguistic and historic preservation."

However, many Native American place names use sounds not found in English. Native Americans had no written language comparable to the alphabet prior to Western contact. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) was invented by anthropologist Edward Sapir in 1921 to describe all possible human sounds. It can be used to write any language. Kari taught Dena'ina speakers how to use the IPA to write their language.

According to Dr. Alan Boraas, who has taught classes in the Dena'ina language, the sounds denoted by the diacritical marks ? (a sound made by forcing air past the mid alveolar region without using the larynx) and q' (a sound made with the soft palate where the air passage is momentarily stopped by closing the glottis, the gap between the vocal chords) are Dena'ina sounds that are not used in English.

"It is difficult," Boraas admits, "for an English speaker to make these sounds." Kari concurs.

This creates a dilemma. Using names that can only be pronounced correctly if spelled using diacritical marks violates a principle of the USBGN requiring geographic names to be "written in the Roman alphabet as normally used for writing the English language." However, the board may consider a spelling with diacritical marks if there is "substantial evidence of active local use, such as official records, maps and signs, in the area where the feature is located."

This principle is intended to make the name pronounceable to all locals, not just a handful of fluent speakers, including a few linguists. Kari admits that even others who speak Dena'ina, from the Kenai Peninsula for example, have a hard time understanding the Upper Cook Inlet dialect. According to Kari, in 1986 only about 25 people could still speak the Upper Cook Inlet dialect.

On the other hand, while the USBGN is officially loath to consider changing place names "that do not agree with well-established local usage," another policy allows it to override "local usage ... in certain individual cases." So it can have it both ways.

Restoring the name ?ach Q'atnu is liable to have an unintended consequence. When most people don't know the correct way to pronounce something, they can gravitate towards a pronunciation bearing little resemblance to the original. For example, two towns in Illinois and Georgia named Cairo are pronounced "CARE-o" or "KAY-ro" by locals, not like the city in Egypt. I suspect that ?ach Q'atnu will eventually become "latch-katnu" or, at best, English speakers will revert to the current anglicized version: Thachkatnu.

'Clay hole creek creek'

The Alaska Historical Commission uses much the same guidelines as the USBGN. However, "changing an official name is only done when a current name is derogatory, causing confusion, or there is evidence of extensive local support by authorities and residents."

Given these criteria, I'm not sure that Kari can make the case for ?ach Q'atnu Creek.

There are other issues. Naming the stream ?ach Q'atnu Creek is both inconsistent and redundant. ?ach Q'atnu already incorporates the Dena'ina word for "creek." The Dena'ina didn't call it ?ach Q'atnu Creek. Not only is the name still anglicized, it now means "Clay Hole Creek Creek." So what have we gained?

Native Americans had a very different culture from which to draw names, which means that place names, even when translated, sometimes make little sense today.

For example, ?ach Q'atnu is named after its source, ?ach Q'a or "Clay Hole," the Dena'ina name for the Twin Peaks. A large mineral lick, which attracts Dall sheep, is the most likely source for the name. Dall sheep were a critical food source for the Dena'ina. It makes sense that they would name the mountain after its most important feature. However, naming two of the area's most prominent peaks "Clay Hole" doesn't make much sense to anyone else.

Or maybe it does to Kari. He documented the Dena'ina names for hundreds of local geographic features in upper Cook Inlet drainages in "Shem Pete's Alaska." Following Kari's reasoning, the Native Village of Eklutna should be Idlughet, its Dena'ina name which means "By the Objects," and Eklutna Lake should be Idlu Bena, or "Plural Objects Lake."


No local opposition?

On his application, responding to the question "is there local opposition" to the change, Kari entered "none known."

Notwithstanding some concerns, the Chugach State Park Citizen Advisory Board voted unanimously in October to support Kari's proposal. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm the chair of that board. Prior to voting, I expressed several of the same reservations in this commentary.

I was one of those who applauded the restoration of Denali, and I can get on board with the other Native American names recently assigned. I just wonder if or when the restoration of "original" names will eventually run out of steam. Because I have been compiling my own list of righteous name changes.

As a wildlife biologist and environmentalist I've long been irked by the names chosen for subdivisions. At least 40 subdivisions in the Anchorage Bowl use the word "wood," and nearly as many refer to a "forest" or the name of a tree, like birch or spruce. Forest Grove, off Elmore Road, is neither. "Meadow" is another popular name. Meadow View, off East Dowling Road? Not any more. The woods were cut down and the meadows filled in.

After we run out of Native American names for geographic features, we can start renaming subdivisions. Meadow View, for instance, could be called Forty-six Closely Packed Duplexes.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary@alaskadispatch.com

Rick Sinnott

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. Email him: rickjsinnott@gmail.com