William Pagaran is a man on a mission and he doesn’t give up easily.
Pagaran began his crusade to rename Chugach State Park’s North and South Suicide Peaks in 2020. In 2021, his proposal to change their names to North and South Yuyanq’ Ch’ex — ”Heaven’s Breath” in English — was denied by the Alaska Historical Commission. But Pagaran has refused to concede defeat. He recently submitted a new and more substantial application and hopes that when the commission meets in June, the nine-member Geographic Names board will this time approve his request. That wouldn’t be the end of the process, but it’s a necessary step along the way.
The renaming of the Suicide Peaks is only one piece in Pagaran’s larger effort to curtail suicides in Alaska, particularly within our state’s indigenous communities, where suicide’s toll is especially heavy. He’s president of Carry the Cure (www.carrythecure.org), a nonprofit, faith-based organization dedicated to “comprehensive suicide and abuse prevention and healthy life-style choices.”
Here I will focus on what Pagaran considers the “inappropriately named, offensive, derogatory, hurtful and culturally dishonoring” names applied to the twin peaks that overlook several valleys in the Chugach Front Range, visible from much of Anchorage.
Though I’ve never felt personally offended by the names, I can understand why others would be. Especially during a time when there’s increased awareness of the scourge that suicide is in Alaska, I can appreciate the desire to seek names that “value life over death.”
No doubt some are wondering, as I long did, how North and South Suicide Peaks got their names. The most widely accepted explanation is that they were named by local railroad workers, who considered them so intimidating that a person would have to be suicidal to attempt climbing them.
It’s also reported that four peaks were originally included in the “Suicides” group. But in 1951 the U.S. Geological Survey applied the name to only the North and South Suicide Peaks, and those have been considered the two mountains’ officially recognized names since then.
Pagaran, who is part Tlingit and lives in Palmer, began his push to change the Suicides’ names in 2020. That summer, he led a circle of Alaskans who discussed the ways suicide had affected their lives, then accompanied several people to the top of 5,005-foot South Suicide Peak. Participants spoke of the need to choose life over suicide — and to replace the Suicide Peaks with a more life-affirming and healing name.
Pagaran consulted with members of the Native group that has the closest ties to the local landscape, the Dena’ina Athabascan tribe, and joined others in an exhaustive search to find out whether a Dena’ina name had ever been given to the pair. None could be found, so their effort shifted, to create a new — and appropriate — name for the peaks.
In the end, an elder named Helen Dick, who speaks the Dena’ina language fluently, suggested Yuyanq’ Ch’ex — pronounced “You-yonk Chech” — which translates into English as “Breath from Above” or “Heaven’s Breath.”
Pagaran also began to seek wider support for his effort. He contacted some local groups, Native and non-Native, and started an online petition.
Then he filed a name-change application with the state’s Alaska Historical Commission. As state historian Katie Ringsmuth explained to me, the commission reviews any such proposal “to ensure it follows Alaska’s Geographic Names Guidelines. If not, we will request additional information.”
Pagaran’s initial application failed to meet those guidelines, Ringsmuth adds, “especially in demonstrating local support for the change.”
Though Pagaran had gained some local backing for his initiative, he failed to get a broad enough spectrum of support.
More than that, two groups with close and longstanding ties to the Chugach Mountains and Chugach State Park — the Mountaineering Club of Alaska (MCA) and the Chugach State Park Citizen Advisory Board (CAB) — presented a long list of reasons they opposed Pagaran’s proposal.
Rather than give up, Pagaran went back to work. Over the past 11 months, he says he’s done “an immense amount of work” to demonstrate why Yuyanq’ Ch’ex is a relevant name that “can make a powerful statement,” one that honors “the First Alaskans of this region, the Dena’ina” while at the same time removing a name “that is derogatory, painful and inappropriate and doesn’t agree with the First Alaskans’ view of (these) beautiful mountains.”
Just as importantly, he has lined up a long list and wide spectrum of local supporters, among them Mayor Dave Bronson; the Anchorage Assembly; several community councils representing neighborhoods closest to the Chugach Front Range; all Native tribes that live in the area and a variety of other Alaska Native groups; State Parks Director Ricky Gease; and a group to which I belong, Friends of Chugach State Park.
Meanwhile, the park’s CAB agreed to reconsider its position and recently voted to support the name change, a significant boost.
The MCA, however, remains firmly opposed. Its Geographic Names Committee voted unanimously to oppose Pagaran’s initial proposal and committee chair Steve Gruhn recently informed me, “I haven’t yet seen any new information,” nor had the club received a request for comment on any revised proposal. “In the absence of any new information, I continue to stand behind the (2021) comments.”
I’ll note here that the MCA’s lengthy comments hold considerable merit and the Geographic Naming Committee clearly did its own homework, while opposing Yuyanq’ Ch’ex on the basis of several criteria.
That said, as one who has formed a close connection to South Suicide Peak and neighboring Falls Creek Valley, I strongly support Pagaran’s campaign. Given our increased recognition of the dark and harmful place that suicide has in Alaska’s culture, the time seems right to give these mountains new names. And what could be more appropriate than poetic names that speak of high places, chosen by a Dena’ina Athabascan elder representing people who lived here long before railroad crews offered their opinions of the mountains?
I would also emphasize that although their names have officially been recognized since 1951, the Suicide Peaks were arbitrarily, even flippantly, named, for reasons that have nothing to do with the mountains’ features or their connection to the local landscape and its human residents. Besides that, two peaks originally included in the Suicides group have already been renamed (apparently to Avalanche Peak and the strangely named Homicide Peak).
For all of that, I think Pagaran might still face an uphill battle, as some renaming criteria seem difficult to meet. Even if the Alaska Historical Commission gives Pagaran a thumbs-up, he still must convince members of the U.S. Board of Geographic Names the change is warranted and meets its principles and policies.
I wish William Pagaran well on his quest and hope that someday a part of the Chugach Front Range is blessed by “Heaven’s Breath,” both North and South.
Anchorage nature writer and wildlands/wildlife advocate Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.”
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