Salmon streams, herring hotspots, and points, islands and settlements around Southeast Alaska have carried Tlingit names for thousands of years. For dozens of recent ones, a team of culture-bearers and academics have worked both to remember and restore them.
Those names carry histories and stories. They can inform people about the environment, and animals. And, said Tlingit Clan Conference speaker Thomas Thornton, they can also help inform management decisions, even today.
Thornton, a former University of Alaska Southeast professor who now is now based at the University of Oxford in England, has authored several books on his research, and spoke at last week’s three-day conference in Juneau about the hundreds of documented place names in Southeast Alaska — especially around places with both biological and cultural significance, which he called “toponymic hotspots.” He and Harold Martin, a Raven and T’akdeintaan clan member, documented many of them in a study they later wrote about in their book “Haa Leelk’w Has Aan’ Saaxu: Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land.”
“A lot of times, the knowledge that our people had… has never really been documented and recognized,” said elder and audience member Paul Marks (Khinkaduneek).
“Place names are resonant, resilient, and worthy of respect in all of their individual and collective facets,” Thornton wrote in his presentation. “Let us restore and endow them to their rightful place in understanding and guiding our interactions with Haa Aaní.”
That was something many other speakers are working to do, as well. Some are working to restore Tlingit names to the land; others are working simply to recover them.
Gary Holton of the Alaska Native Place Names Project out of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, noted how people have been “pulling together for a cause” over the last few years.
The percentage of Alaska Native names approved as “official” over the last three decades has been steadily increasing, he said.
It’s an involved process finding, verifying, and documenting accurate names, Holton said. Even after in-depth research, he and team members have had to make corrections to their work.
“We think there are well over 50,000 Alaska Native names known or documented in the state of Alaska,” he said.
Without a comprehensive list of named features, however, “it’s impossible to know what is and is not named,” he said.
“There’s a lot of information out there that is just kind of misplaced,” he said. “We’re trying to get it compiled and available.”
Wayne Howell, an anthropologist recently retired from Glacier Bay, spoke on the names he collected for the area over the years. The bay itself has three Tlingit names, and the “assemblage of names” for the areas around the bay are “all applying to the same landscape, but different landscapes,” he said, referencing the advance of the glacier that forced the Huna Tlingit to leave the bay.
Three names Howell mentioned for Glacier Bay are S’e Shuyee (area at the end of the clay), Xáat Tú (inside of the icebergs,) and Sít’ Eeti Geiyi (bay in place of the glacier) — all names for Glacier Bay at different times.
“There’s a big record of western research to complement the ethnographic record,” he said. “The two blend together beautifully in this case.”
After the Chookaneidi clan established themselves in Hoonah — one of the four clans to move there — they tell of a time summer didn’t happen. Winter followed winter.
Tree rings tell that story too, Howell said.
The glaciers weighed down the land, meaning the sea rose higher. The waves destroyed places they hadn’t previously reached. They put silt in salmon streams, and destroyed intertidal zones.
“It would have been a time of terrible loss,” Howell said.
Just the same, the process of naming went on. Names told of historic events, of natural processes. They changed as the landscaped changed.
Then, in the 20th century, names became more fixed.
Juneau architect Wayne Jensen, a member of the Alaska Historical Commission, spoke about the process of naming an unnamed geographical feature, or renaming one that’s already been named.
Renaming, he said, can be difficult, in part for safety — first responders that may need to access a certain area should know the same name for a place as the person in need of rescue.
“There is a reluctance to change an established name unless it is derogatory, duplicative, or causing confusion,” he said. “The proposer must demonstrate a compelling reason to change.”
The locally used name is “the single, best reason to name a feature,” he said. Just the same, most proposals the committee receives are commemorative — to name a place after people or events — which is not usual in the Tlingit naming tradition, according to Thornton and Martin’s book.
Though many are working to restore Native names, not everyone wants them publicized.
When he and Martin were collecting place names, they had to be careful to follow a protocol, Thornton said.
“All of them said it (finding names) was important, but there were some issues with documentation,” he said. “Some of the communities saw these names as clan properties, or intellectual property.”
Other times, it was the stories behind the names that were the intellectual property of the tribe, and clans later asked that names be removed from maps, which was also an important part of the process, Thornton said.
Regardless of whether they’re remembered, written down, or official, many names still live in the landscape. Howell told the story of how one feature on the Alsek River was named for a story in which Raven is trapped inside a whale. When he’s done fighting his way out, his beak is covered in fat, and he has to wipe it off.
Howell was floating down the Alsek when he saw what must be that place, he said — a deep “v” in the stone above the river, big enough for Raven’s enormous beak, and stones falling down from it.
“There’s a lot of different things in our culture that are still around today, that are still happening,” culture-bearer Fred White said in reference to this story. The rocks from that place, he said, “will fall down all around you and never hit you.”
“You can go to these place-name maps and you can do this kind of exercise over and over and over again… just think of the educational potential,” Howell said.
Elder Marie Olson spoke on her project documenting more than 50 place names in Juneau with elder Cecelia Kunz.
One of the first they documented was D’zantiki Heeni, the Tlingit name for Gold Creek. “D’zantiki Heeni,” as many in Juneau now know, means “where the flounder congregate at the mouth of the creek” and is now the name of one of Juneau’s two middle schools.
“She was my mentor, and I learned so much more than the language. I learned the culture,” Olson said of Kunz, who is now deceased.
Thornton also spoke about Kunz, who was their main source for place names in Juneau. They took her on a boat around Indian Point, and that process helped her remember and name some other sites.
“One thing I remember very powerfully is she cried, because nobody else knew these names,” Thornton said. “She felt like somebody else should still remember them.”
“Names really inspire our people,” said speaker Kenneth Grant of Hoonah. “I see all of us as the wolf crying from hunger for knowledge of our ancestors.”
• Contact Capital City Weekly staff writer Mary Catharine Martin at email@example.com.