Sealaska Institute releases cultural atlas

JUNEAU -- "Haa Leelk'w Has Aan' Saaxu: Our Grandparents' Names on the Land," might seem at first glance to be an academic work, not easily accessible to or designed for the general public. But this important book, released Friday by Sealaska Heritage Institute, becomes less intimidating when viewed as a different kind of atlas, a rich geographical and cultural reference, all the more fascinating for its ability to reintroduce us to the place we live.


"I hope people who are interested in the region will think of it like an atlas, but also almost like an instrument - to reorient the way they think about the region of Southeast Alaska, or maybe just the places they've known," said editor Thomas Thornton, a former anthropology professor at University of Alaska Southeast. Thornton, a sociocultural anthropologist who now works at the University of Oxford in England, compiled the information for the book with Harold Martin, who lives in Juneau. Martin grew up in Kake and is a Raven of the T'akdeintaan clan.

The two men worked together on the project from 1994 through 2000, funding their research through three separate National Park Service Heritage Grants. The findings were at first only intended to be published as a series of reports, delivered to Native leaders in each community. But, after requests from communities for additional copies of the reports and submissions of additional entries, a comprehensive summary was planned. Sealaska Heritage Institute, which published the book with the University of Washington Press, was key to getting the material into book form, with president Rosita Worl playing a crucial role in making this happen.

One of the primary purposes of the book is to promote respect for Native names, Thornton writes in his introduction, for their resilience and resonance as well as for their significance and meanings. Thornton said anyone who lives here, or cares about the region, should value this information.

"I think that's something everyone should be interested in, not just an anthropologist, linguist or archaeological specialist," he said.

Place names are more than "linguistic artifacts," they are as useful as GPS, Thornton said, "only more profound." In his introduction to the book he compares them to boxes of daylight, illuminating the world.

Engaging chapter introductions lead the reader into each community area, or kwaan, and often include anecdotal details about the information gathering process. Following the introductory text are simple numbered tables that correspond to unlabeled maps, with a translation and English location indicator.

The book does not attempt to explain complex cultural references these place names often indicate; such detail would cover many volumes and, Thornton said, some information is proprietary, belonging to certain clans. Those who wish to find out more about a particular name are instead directed to ask local tribes, who have databases of the sources for each entry as well as larger maps and much more extensive cultural information.

The book explores not only the importance of Native names within Tlingit culture, but also how Tlingit names differ from English names in dramatic ways. One big difference is that Tlingit names are often biological or topographic, whereas English names are often biographical. In Glacier Bay, for example, 59 percent of Tlingit names were found to be topographical, with 43 percent of those being water-related, whereas 50 percent of English names in the area are biographical. Biographical names are very unusual in Tlingit place naming; in fact, it is more often the case that a person would be named for the place, not the other way around, according to the book. Biographical names, by their very nature, often lack connection to the land they mark.

"Not all English place names are bad, just the ones where it's some colonial effort to just name things after people, with no real organic contact with the landscape," Thornton said. "Those are the ones that bother me."

The most famous example might be Mount McKinley, which was called Denali ('the great one' or 'the high one') by the Athabaskans. The name was changed to McKinley for political reasons around the turn of the century, and though the Alaska Board of Geographic Names later changed it back to Denali, a similar petition to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names was blocked by the Ohio congressional delegation, who view McKinley as one of their state's heroes. (Forget about the fact that he never even set foot in the state.) As a concession, the park around the mountain is now called Denali, though Thornton said, given the meaning of the name, it would have made more sense to call the mountain Denali and the park McKinley.

Closer to home, and most obviously, the area around Juneau, near Gold Creek, was originally called Dzantik'i Heeni, which means "flounder at the base of the creek," a name given to one of Juneau's two middle schools in the mid-1990s.

Other place names have retained some aspects of their original Tlingit names, such as Sitka, from Sheet'ka ("shee" for Baranof island and "ka" meaning the "outside" or "ocean side").

In other cases, even though a Tlingit root was often clearly in evidence in a name, Thornton said "unpacking" the name to get at the meaning was often difficult due to the passage of time and the tendency of words to become contracted. For example, some say the name Taku comes from t'a (king salmon) and ku (cove), but that is probably inaccurate, Thornton said.

"It's a folk etymology, we're pretty sure. It's more likely that it is "t'aakz," a place where geese lay down."

Another factor that sets Tlingit place names apart from English is the fact that Tlingit is a complex, verb-based language, and place names often reflect this, expressing movement or change or other actions in ways that would be impossible in English without using a whole string of words. For example, one of the Tlingit names for Johns Hopkins Inlet is "Anax Kuyaawal'ix'i Ye," which means "where the glacier ice broke through."

In some cases, the ways place names have changed over time have given geologists and others insights into how the land itself changed. A good example is Glacier Bay. An old name for the area was S'i Shuyee ("area at the end of the clay"), which became Xaat Tz ("inside the icebergs"), and, most recently, Smt' Eeti Geiym ("Bay in Place of the Glacier").

They can also indicate human history, such as Auke Bay village, which the Tlingit called "Aanchgaltsoow" ("town that moved") after the original village was moved from Indian Cove.

Very frequently Tlingit names are also richly descriptive reference points on the landscape, such as Lituya Bay, from "Ltu.aa," "lake inside the point (nostril)."

The research for the book involved hundreds of extensive interviews with elders in Southeast communities through the help of a local research coordinator (Juneau's was Nora Dauenhauer, who also conducted research in Hoonah). Martin, who speaks Tlingit and was a primary contact for geographical information around Kake, was at the time of the project's inception the subsistence director of the Southeast Native Subsistence Commission, a group made up of representatives from Southeast Native communities and Anchorage. The subsistence issue was in fact the original base for the book project. Thornton, who first came to Alaska in 1988, had previously worked in the subsistence division for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, before becoming an anthropology professor, and approached Martin about a Native place name project that might help demonstrate historical Native uses of the land.

"The land itself is the most fundamental subsistence resource, and ... place names would be an accurate way to explain subsistence uses of specific landscape. That's the way we pitched it," Thornton said.

Thornton stirred Martin's interest - or as Martin says in his introduction, his "urgency," - in completing the project while there was still time to interview elders who knew the names and their meanings. Martin was instrumental in conducting these interviews, and in helping Thornton learn the necessary protocols in conducting research with elders, and in facilitating tribal collaboration.

Thornton said in most cases they were unable to take the elders into the field for identification, instead relying on maps and heavily researched lists compiled prior to the interviews. (At one point, Thornton entered into correspondence with Frederica de Laguna, a well-known ethnologist who died in 2004.)

"If we had had endless money and endless time, the approach would have been to get a boat and go around and take these elders out," he said. "Memory works upon synesthesia - you're in the place, you're smelling it, you're seeing it, hearing it, and memories come back. It's different when you're looking at a map."

Even without this extended field work, the research was immensely productive, garnering more than 3,000 place names. The book offers endless opportunities for Southeast residents to reacquaint themselves with areas they know well, and, more fundamentally, allows the opportunity to glimpse aspects of the complex connections that bind Tlingit culture to this land. As Thornton writes in his introduction, "place is culture and culture is place."

The book also has practical value, as an educational tool for kids and for the public, for example, in reintegrating Native place names into modern signage and other usage. In Skagway, an exhibit created by the Skagway Traditional Council, Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Park Service displays some of the names from Thornton's place name project on a map that visitors to the area can access. And in Juneau there has been talk of getting more Native place names onto local street signs.

Petitioning the government for formal name changes on official maps is a decision Thornton left up to the individual tribes.

"It's really up to the tribes and the local communities if they want to do that," he said.

Even if the tribes wanted to petition for a formal name change, it would be hard to come by; as the Denali example makes clear, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names tends to be very conservative. Part of their change policy states: "changing a name merely to correct or re-establish historical usage is not in and of itself a reason to change a name."

But increasing familiarity with Native place names, whether officially recognized or not, can only enrich each of us -- in deepening our perspective on the history of the land, and in re-orienting us in navigating it now, and, in a broader way, in fostering increased respect for Tlingit and other Alaska Native cultures. We can't roll back the devastating effects of cultural suppression, but this project shows that cross-cultural salvage efforts can be of huge value, not only for Alaska Natives, but for anyone who calls this area home.

Information from: Juneau Empire,


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