ANCHORAGE — The federal government will now recognize a major river system in Alaska by its two native names.
The Interior Alaska river currently known as Chandalar will now be called Teedriinjik River and Ch’idriinjik River, thanks to a September decision by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, reported the Alaska Dispatch News.
Teedriinjik means “shimmering river” and applies to the main stream and its northern tributary. Ch’idriinjik means “heart river” and is associated with another tributary of the same river system.
Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in Tribal Government former Second Chief Edward Alexander submitted an application to the board last year asking for the river to be known by the names local Athabascan people have used for more than a thousand years.
Officially recognizing those names would “help revitalize Gwich’in culture and language,” Alexander wrote.
The Alaska Historical Commission, however, was opposed to the change. In a 6-1 vote last November, commission members rejected the change, citing the difficult pronunciations and a lack of evidence for widespread use.
Commissioner Michael Hawfield voted with the majority and said the board supports using Native place names “when it makes sense”— but, according to Hawfield, in this case it didn’t.
“It was just too big a change for a large number of Alaskans who are not indigenous,” said Hawfield, who represents the Alaska Historical Society on the commission. “It might cause all sorts of unwanted pushback as being too politically correct.”
The U.S. Board of Geographic Names normally has a “conservative” approach to name changes to avoid confusion but supports proposed names with widespread local use, said senior staffer Jennifer Runyon.
“It is somewhat unusual for the U.S. board to go against the state names authority’s decision,” she said. “But the U.S. board found the argument for the change more convincing.”
Teedriinjik and Ch’idriinjik are just the latest Native Alaska place names to be officially recognized.
The Wade Hampton Census Area, named after a slaveholding Civil War general, became the Kusilvak Census Area in July. And in August, the President Barack Obama administration announced that Mount McKinley would return to its Koyukon Athabascan name of Denali.