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In push for Alaska Native place names, a boost from a digital atlas

  • Author: Asaf Shalev
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published November 8, 2015

During a recent walk along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, Dena'ina historian Aaron Leggett pointed to an area that was devastated during the massive Good Friday earthquake in 1964. Trees and houses on a mile-wide stretch of earth had come tumbling down.

Had Anchorage consulted Dena'ina geography, he said, the bluffs facing Cook Inlet may not have seemed like such a good location for a neighborhood. The Dena'ina name for that area is Nen Ghi?gedi, which he translates literally as "rotten land."

In the past decade, Leggett has emerged as one of the leading voices for the recognition and restoration of indigenous names. Place names "remind people that not long ago, Anchorage was a Dena'ina fish camp and that the Dena'ina people are still here," he said.

When he was growing up in Anchorage, his family did not speak explicitly about their Dena'ina identity. The community was busy adjusting to "so much change in just a few generations," he said.

"If you came here 10-12 years ago, you'd be pressed to find any mention of us," he said. The most prominent example of the recent shift is the name of the city's premier convention space, the Dena'ina Center, which opened in 2008.

As an adult, Leggett began asking questions about his cultural heritage, finding geographic knowledge particularly empowering. "Place names give me a more nuanced understanding of where I come from," he said, crediting the book "Shem Pete's Alaska," which documents the geography of the Tikahtnu area, or Cook Inlet, as the best source on the topic.

This year has brought some major accomplishments for advocates of restoring indigenous names. The Koyukon Athabascan name Denali officially replaced Mount McKinley as the name for Alaska's (and North America's) highest peak. The name of Wade Hampton, a slave owner and Confederate general, was dropped from a Western Alaska census area in favor of Kusilvak, a Yup'ik name for a local mountain range. And most recently, Teedriinjik and Ch'idriinjik became the official names for parts of an Arctic river system formerly designated Chandalar.

The trend seems likely to be bolstered by the introduction last month of what is set to become the state's first comprehensive atlas of Native place names.

Researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the National Snow and Ice Data Center have teamed up to consolidate a dozen geographic databases into a single interactive map.

Since environmental knowledge is embedded in Native place names, the atlas could become a tool for researching Alaska's "biocultural diversity," according to the National Science Foundation's grant description.

Gary Holton, a UAF linguist leading the Alaska Native Place Names Project, said he is seeing "increased appreciation" from scientists for Native sources of knowledge in the study of climate change.

The atlas will help researchers cross-reference current snow and ice data with past landscape knowledge that can be gleaned from Native place names.

"The intersection between physical and social sciences is increasingly where some of the interesting work is being done," he said.

Holton presented a prototype of the atlas to elders at the annual Tlingit conference in Juneau.

"This atlas will make a huge amount of place name data available to people but also, crucially, it will allow people to log in, add, correct, and suggest information in a social media way," he said in an interview before the presentation. "They can interact with it. It's not just a static website or resource. It allows people to add their knowledge too."

Holton said stories from elders about a name's meaning or origin would add particular depth to place names.

Currently, the atlas consists of about 10,000 entries, each place name accompanied by information such as feature type (mountain, river, village, etc.), alternate names and general comments. In the future, media files such as audio clips with proper pronunciation could be added, too. By incorporating other databases, the atlas could swell to include more than 70,000 names eventually.

The project builds on existing technology developed by geographic data systems expert Peter Pulsifer and the Exchange for Local Observations of and Knowledge of the Arctic. A Yup'ik-specific atlas built with the ELOKA technology serves as a model of what the statewide map could turn out to be.

There are two years' worth of funding remaining on the grant, but Pulsifer said the pace and direction of the project -- and when it becomes available to the public -- will mostly be determined by the communities that choose to participate, Pulsifer said.

"We have moved away from this model where someone from outside the communities would dictate what happens with their knowledge and heritage," he said.

The theme of this year's Tlingit Clan Conference was "Our Names, Our Strength," another indication of coalescing interest in geographic knowledge.

Southeast Alaska is dotted with names of "long-dead German princesses or Important White Guys," wrote Gerry Hope, an organizer of the Tlingit conference, in a letter welcoming attendees. He called for a revival of Tlingit names, which are "usually descriptive and rich with meaning."

"With each person who receives the name of an ancestor and with each indigenous place name that becomes a geographical reference, we breathe life into our indigenous languages," he wrote.

Holton said he has encountered particular interest in name preservation among Tlingit people, citing the culture's unique land ownership system organized around clans. "It's an area where people place particularly close attention to place names," he said.

Cartographers have long collected indigenous place names in lists and databases and constructed accompanying maps. But those efforts have been regional and piecemeal -- perhaps a National Park Service study conducted in one corner of the state, and a decade later, a regional corporation's project.

The impetus for a statewide repository of names can be traced to the 1974 publication of a map called "Native Peoples and Languages of Alaska." In one sense, that map was a triumph. It demarcated the historical regions of more than 20 different language groups in the state. But it also revealed a serious lack of knowledge. For many of the landmarks and other places, the mapmakers were forced to use non-Native names.

"People wanted to see indigenous place names on the map." Holton said. "Somewhat naively, I responded, 'Sure, we can do this. It should be easy.'"

After two years of work, Holton and his fellow researcher were able to publish a new map with about 270 place names, a far cry from the tens of thousands estimated to exist in various archives.

"It turned out to be a massive challenge," he said. "We discovered that, really, there is no master list … only regional and limited lists."

In recent years, the National Science Foundation has funded efforts by linguists and geographers to build a central database for Native place names in Alaska. The work has included collecting and combining written records that date back to Russian times, unearthing new sources and interviewing elders.

"We collect everything that anyone has ever recorded," Holton said. "We do a lot of sleuthing."

The nature of the work is such that the finish line can only be approached, never reached. It would impossible for anyone to determine that all possible place names have been recovered.

"Not any one person can recite all the names in a region," Holton said. "We all know a little bit of it, so you really need a group of speakers to collaborate to build that knowledge."

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