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Peak on ridge above Juneau gets its Tlingit name officially restored

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  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 12, 2015

JUNEAU -- A point on a Tongass National Forest ridge just outside Juneau has become the first geographic feature with a federally recognized name in the Native language of Tlingit — concluding a process begun a decade ago, when a respected former state transportation official, Jon Scribner, was killed in a fall from another mountain.

The newly recognized 3,610-foot peak is Tlax?satanjín, a name used by the Tlingit people for 400 years that loosely translates to "the hands are at rest." The traditional name, with its diacritical marks, was approved last month by a federal board based on an application from an Alaska Native languages professor, Lance Twitchell,

Twitchell's application followed a separate request from some of Scribner's former colleagues to name the feature for their friend.

The Scribner naming proposal was withdrawn at the request of his family after they learned of the plan to give the mountain its indigenous name, which they said they never intended to replace.

Twitchell is part Tlingit, Haida and Yup'ik, and the greeting on his mobile phone is recorded in Tlingit, one of the officially recognized indigenous languages of Southeast Alaska. He called the official naming a "fantastic process" but added that frequently, "it's just saying: This is what this thing's been called for thousands of years."

"The act of colonialism often comes in and just ignores local knowledge — especially naming things after people," Twitchell said. He added: "I think there's a day coming where we probably have to think very seriously as Alaskans about how we're going to take care of this, because things that were named already have names."

Twitchell said people were afraid there would be controversy between the two proposals to name the peak, which sits on Heintzleman Ridge to the north of Juneau. But he said there was a "wonderful resolution" after he met with one of Scribner's daughters, Mandy Mallott — who also happens to be the daughter-in-law of Alaska Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, who's Tlingit himself.

Mandy Mallott declined to be interviewed and referred a reporter to a letter she wrote — with a preface in Tlingit — to the Alaska Historical Commission published in the Juneau Empire last year. It said her family endorsed the use of Tlax?satanjín's indigenous name and looked forward to a "community dialogue and collaboration that seeks to restore Tlingit place names throughout this region."

Mandy Mallott added in an email her family celebrates the "recognition of Tlax?satanjín, and I know my dad would too."

Scribner was a longtime employee of the state's departments of transportation and environmental conservation who worked under five governors. He was an avid outdoorsman, known for leaving his state office for hikes into the mountains from a trail outside the building.

He was killed in a fall on a descent from Mount Stroller White near Juneau's Mendenhall Glacier in the spring of 2005, at age 63.

Eight years later, a pair of his former colleagues submitted their proposal for what they referred to as an "unnamed peak" near Heintzleman Ridge.

The plan was to call the point Mount Scribner. It had support from the City and Borough of Juneau and Juneau Sen. Dennis Egan, as well as from Scribner's family. The proposal was approved by the Alaska Historical Commission in 2013.

The group sent its proposal to local Alaska Native groups such as Sealaska Corp. and the central council of Alaska's Tlingit and Haida tribes, and it received no response, according to a copy of the application. But as the plan moved ahead to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, Twitchell said, he and others who have worked on indigenous place names learned of the proposal and submitted one of their own.

Twitchell's proposal, he said, was to make clear that Tlax?satanjín "is actually the name of that place — and this has been what it's been called for a long time."

Twitchell ended up meeting with Mandy Mallott, Scribner's daughter, who told him that if her father were still alive, "he would rather have the Tlingit name."

"We're really thankful to the family of Jon Scribner," Twitchell said.

Twitchell said he's now hoping that the administration of Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Mallott will come up with a "creative solution" to restore more Alaska Native place names.

The proposal for Tlax?satanjín, Twitchell said, would be the first of "probably thousands."

He declined to offer a phonetic transliteration of the word. Instead, he said, "we'll teach people how to say it," and he provided a reporter with a digital recording.

Byron Mallott didn't respond to requests to be interviewed, but a spokeswoman pointed to a workshop on Alaska Native place names scheduled this month in Anchorage that's sponsored by Bristol Bay Native Corp. and UAF's Native language center. The workshop includes a report on a Yup'ik atlas project and another session on raven place names in Tlingit Country.

Mallott's spokeswoman also provided a prepared statement.

"I am very supportive of place names that reflect Alaska and its peoples and of course I am particularly interested in seeing that traditional place names in Native languages be a meaningful part of the place names future," Mallott's statement said. "There are many unnamed physical features and adding appropriate names to those features that reflect Alaska history, traditions, cultures and individuals of consequence to places and events is very much a worthy initiative that I support and will pursue."

Tlax?satanjín, meanwhile, will now be printed on official federal maps and publications — including one of the Juneau Icefield that will be released shortly.

"It'll actually be in print next month," said Robert Francis, the lead cartographer for the Alaska region of the U.S. Forest Service. "We can finally put it on the map."

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