This screenshot from a video shown during a Juneau School District Board of Education meeting shows Riverbend Elementary School students working on a project. The school may soon have a new name, Kaxdigoowú Héen Elementary School. The name translates to “going back to clear water,” in English. (Screenshot)

This screenshot from a video shown during a Juneau School District Board of Education meeting shows Riverbend Elementary School students working on a project. The school may soon have a new name, Kaxdigoowú Héen Elementary School. The name translates to “going back to clear water,” in English. (Screenshot)

Renaming Riverbend: School board expresses support for gifted name

Further consideration of Kaxdigoowú Héen Elementary School comes next month.

For some the question is why the latest gifting of an Alaska Native name to a Juneau school isn’t a union of the existing and new names, as has happened previously. For others the answer is bidding farewell to the existing name of a school suffering troublesome times recently means the new name can help make a fresh start.

Whatever the reason(s), it seems likely Riverbend Elementary School will soon be known as Kaxdigoowú Héen Elementary School since there was considerable enthusiasm and no opposition during an initial presentation Tuesday night to the Juneau Board of Education. The renaming is scheduled for final consideration by the board at its regular meeting May 10.

The ancient Tlingit A’akw name for the location honors the strength and resilience of Tlingit people who set fish traps in the strong current of Mendenhall River, according to advocates and a video presented to the board. Part of the motivation for reestablishing the name came from the river pushing through the natural “bend” alongside the school in 2018.

“As the mighty river has determined a new course, we too would like to carve our own path towards a future that acknowledges the rich history of this place and our connection to it,” said Fran Houston, cultural Leader of the A’akw Kwáan, during an introduction of the 10-minute video showing students learning about the significance of the name — and trying along with teachers to pronounce it with not always perfect success.

[New walls, new roof, new name?]

In subsequent comments to the board, Houston said she was first contacted many months ago about the school possibly seeking a Lingít-language name and “I talked it over with the family members and they were all tickled pink.” The A’akw Kwáan met and unanimously decided the name, Kax̱ digoowú Héen, which translates in English to “going back to clear water” be gifted to the school.

“It is an old, old name and it is so nice to bring it back to life,” Houston said. “What great joy it is to hear the children say the name. They say it a lot better than I do.”

Board members speaking about the proposal all expressed support, although Brian Holst, the board’s vice president, asked why the proposal doesn’t seek to combine the current and gifted names as happened with other schools, such as Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé.

“Is it necessary, or why would you want to eliminate the current name and not do what we did with other schools?” he asked.

Riverbend Principal Elizabeth Pisel-Davis said it’s essential to bring the traditional names back to life and “we see it not as eliminating a name, but reclaiming the name that was already here.”

“We feel this is the most appropriate way to honor the meaning and the magnitude of the gift given to our students and families,” she said. “This is also part of our role as educators and people who live on Tlingit land to help revitalize the language.”

Emil Mackey, the board’s clerk, said his only hesitation “is by dropping the English pronuncian we get away from the philosophy of integration,” but feedback he’s seen to the proposal is motivation to support the change. Some speaking during the meeting and in prior public comments noted the school has suffered problems lately such as a burst pipe in January that caused extensive structural damage forcing the temporary closure of the school — with further repairs still scheduled this summer — and destroying books and other valued items.

“One of the letters that meant something to me is Riverbend has been plagued by a lot of issues and this would be a fresh start for Riverbend,” Mackey said. “With the immense work we’re putting into Riverbend school I really believe renaming the school is good for the entire community.”

Bob Sam, a Tlingit storyteller and cemetery caretaker featured on the renaming video, said the historic name’s fish trap origins are an appropriate allegory for the school.

“The fish net will be a safety net to wrap around the students, and make them feel safe when they come into the school and until they graduate from the school,” he said.

• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at

More in News

Drag queen Gigi Monroe reads a book about a wig during Drag Storytime at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
One for the books: Drag Storytime returns

Balloons, books, bustin’ moves.

FILE - Tara Sweeney, a Republican seeking the sole U.S. House seat in Alaska, speaks during a forum for candidates, May 12, 2022, in Anchorage, Alaska. Sweeney's campaign manager said, Wednesday, June 22, 2022, that the campaign did not plan to sue over a finding released by Alaska elections officials stating that she cannot advance to the special election for U.S. House following the withdrawal of another candidate. (AP Photo / Mark Thiessen, File)
Alaska Supreme Court ruling keeps Sweeney off House ballot

In a brief written order, the high court said it affirmed the decision of a Superior Court judge.

President Joe Biden signs into law S. 2938, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act gun safety bill, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Saturday, June 25, 2022. First lady Jill Biden looks on at right. (AP Photo / Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President signs landmark gun measure, says ‘lives will be saved’

The House gave final approval Friday, following Senate passage Thursday.

Three people were arrested over several days in a series of events stemming from a June 16 shoplifting incident, with a significant amount of methamphetamine seized. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)
Shoplifting investigation leads to arrests on drug charges

Significant amounts of drugs and loose cash, as well as stolen goods, were found.

Ben Gaglioti, an ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, stands next to a mountain hemlock tree damaged in winter on the outer coast of Glacier Bay National Park in Southeast Alaska. (Courtesy Photos / Ned Rozell)
Alaska Science Forum: Bonsai trees tell of winters long past

By Ned Rozell A GREEN PLATEAU NORTH OF LITUYA BAY — “These… Continue reading

This photo shows a return envelope from the recent special primary election for Alaska's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. On Friday, a judge sided with the state elections office on a decision to omit fifth-place finisher Tara Sweeney from ballots in the special general election. Al Gross, who finished third in the special primary, dropped out of the race, creating confusing circumstances ahead of Alaska's first ranked choice vote. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
Judge rules Sweeney wont advance to special election

Decision has Sweeney off the ballot for special election.

It's a police car until you look closely and see the details don't quite match. (Juneau Empire File / Michael Penn)
Police calls for Saturday, June 25, 2022

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

A Princess Cruise Line ship is docked in Juneau on Aug. 25, 2021. (Michael Lockett / Juneau Empire File)
Ships in Port for the week of June 19

Here’s what to expect this week.

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire 
Peter Froehlich, a retired Juneau district judge who is now a volunteer tour guide, explains the history of the history of the Kimball Theatre Pipe Organ in the State Office Building to a group of visitors Thursday. The organ has been idle since 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and now needs repairs before regular Friday lunchtime concerts and other performances on the 94-year-old instrument can resume.
Historic organ is in need of tuneup

How much it will cost and who will do it remain up in the air.

Most Read