Tlingit name ‘Sayéik’ may be added to Gastineau School

The City and Borough of Juneau and the Douglas Indian Association are partnering to add a Tlingit name to Gastineau Elementary, to further acknowledge racial atrocities against Alaska Natives that occurred there and on Douglas Island.

In 1956, the city paved over a Tlingit burial ground in order to build a highway and the school. In 1962, the city of Douglas burned down the Douglas Indian Village to make way for Douglas harbor.

The gravesite underneath the school was unearthed inadvertently in 2012 when contractors for the city were doing renovations on the school. Afterward, the city has worked with DIA to acknowledge the historic events and to also begin a journey of healing and reconciliation for the future.

One of the components of this healing process is adding a Tlingit name to the school’s front sign, which is intended to remind students of the site’s history. At an Aug. 18 meeting of the DIA board, the group unanimously approved the name “Sayéik,” which means “Spirit Helper.”

DIA board member Barbara Cadiente-Nelson said Tlingits have called the area Sayéik for generations already.

“This name is specific to that particular area,” Cadiente-Nelson said at the meeting. “It’s not a name the council or any elder chose to describe the event or locale. It’s an indigenous name of the Áak’w Kwáan and the T’aaku Kwáan.”

The proposal to augment the name is now going through a process with the Board of Education, which began at Tuesday night’s meeting. The proposal will be on the agenda for the Oct. 17 board meeting as well, where the board members will vote on whether or not to adopt the name.

Eventually, the sign in front of the school will read “Gastineau Elementary School: Sayéik” and the website will be updated. According to materials provided at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, the new signage will “have minimal budget impacts” and will likely be done with school renovation bond funds if available.

DIA briefly considered other names, such as Anax Yaa Andagan Yé, which means “where the sun rays hit first,” but that name was more appropriate for Douglas Harbor, Cadiente-Nelson said. Another name under consideration was X’áat’ T’áak, which is the Tlingit name for the entirety of Douglas Island.

The name augmentation isn’t the only change happening at the school, as DIA and Goldbelt Heritage collaborated to raise a 26-foot Raven healing totem pole in front of the school in May. DIA and the city have also been in talks to raise a separate monument on the site in honor of the burial ground.

[Photos: Totem pole raising]

Cadiente-Nelson explained that the disturbing of the graves in 2012 brought up memories of the original paving of the cemetery and other incidents in the tribe’s history with the city. She said there was great emotional strain on the tribe after the event, but that having that happen served as a reminder of the past and the need to move forward. That reminder, Cadiente-Nelson said, makes the Sayéik name even more meaningful.

“We have come to accept that we are being aided by ‘Spirit Helpers’ to carry and resolve these injustices,” Cadiente-Nelson said.

Gastineau Principal Brenda Edwards said the addition of Sayéik to the school’s name fits well with one of the school’s main missions.

“From the school’s point of view, one of the things we teach across all of the grades is how individuals are part of the community and how we as a school are part of the community,” Edwards said. “I think it’s really important and really valuable, and we have this special case, this history that our school is on, that we get to really learn about this location and what it means to the Tlingit people that are here.”

Though there was no action for the board to take Tuesday, multiple Board of Education members expressed their support for the name augmentation. Vice President Andi Story said she respected how much time went into the naming process and that the changes at the school will benefit the entire community.

“The emphasis on healing is helping us all and bringing us together,” Story said, “and I appreciate that leadership from the tribe and leading us that way.”

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at

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