Advancing Native place names in Alaska


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Recently there has been a surge in public interest in native-origin place names in Alaska. These names attest to the rich heritage of native languages and cultures in the state. Several recent and pending proposals suggest native names locations which otherwise lack an official name. Native names have also been proposed as replacements for derogatory names, such as the 2012 proposal to replace Negrohead Creek with the Athabascan name Łochenyatth Creek.

In addition to these there are a wealth of official names, carefully documented by Orth (1967), which are clearly of Native origin but are improperly spelled. These could benefit greatly by having the Native name included as a variant and displayed on maps in parentheses next to the official name. For example, Talkeetna (K’dalkitnu), could be rendered easily since K’dalkitnu is the sole variant for this name in GNIS. In other cases this approach would be more difficult. GNIS lists 47 variant names for Mt. McKinley, 33 of which appear to be of Native origin, but there is no easy way to determine that Deenaalee is the correct spelling of the Koyukon Athabascan name from which the common name Denali derives. Another situation we find on occasion is a Native-language place name that has been inadvertently assigned to the wrong feature.

Since its founding by state legislation in 1972 the Alaska Native Language Center has worked to develop standardized writing systems for all twenty Native languages in the state, while also compiling place name lists. In this presentation we suggest ways that ANLC could collaborate on Alaskan GNIS entries to make them (a) more effective for public use; and (b) more accurately mirror authentic the native language place names.

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  • Still the only statewide organization devoted to Native language study
  • Worthy goal, but will take many years to achieve
  • Ashana is a pretty made up name from Dena’ina for ‘flower’Tsaani was coined to replace Squaw Creek. Derives from Ahtna ‘black bear’ (GNIS just lists ‘bear’). Actual Ahtna name is Xelt'aats'i Na', literally ‘water lily creek’; original proposer listed Chawnee Creek
  • Confusion in GNIS, reference to “Lower Tanana Gwich’in language”
  • named after Chichantna River, but not the Native name for the mountainnamed after Nagishlamina River; native name of mountain unknown; Kari posits Nahq’ashla ‘little lookout’ as being located west of mouth of Nagishlamina River, so not this mountain
  • ŁachQ’atnu
  • The native-origin name does not always equal the Native name7188 ft. peak S of Chakachamna Lake Visible from AnchorageFirst ascent in 2004Some discrepancy in elevation (climbing report lists 7530 ft.)
  • There IS aCh’akajabena Mountain (the Dena’ina name used the Dena’ina generic for mountain, dghilu), but it is located North of the lake, not South.
  • Three Dena’ina names exist as a cluster, following typical Athabaskan place naming strategy which creates binominal names using a single specific term (in this case ch’akaja) paired with various generics.
  • A more manageable goal, augment GNIS database to incorporate “privileged” variants.
  • Determining the “correct” variant is not always easy. I don’t want to be so naïve as to claim that there is only one correct name. I use the word correct here in the sense of, which name would you choose for a map if you were making a map which included native names? Consider the names for Talkeetna River, a major tributary of the Susitna with a mean flow of 4000 cfs.
  • Cook Inlet has 19 variant names
  • 5 of these
  • 5 of these
  • Advancing Native place names in Alaska

    1. 1. Advancing Native Place Namesin AlaskaGary Holton, Lawrence Kaplan, and James KariAlaska Native Language CenterUniversity of Alaska FairbanksCOGNA 2013, Minneapolis
    2. 2. Alaska Native Language Center• Founded 1972 with the mission:1. study languages native to Alaska2. develop literacy materials3. assist in the translation of important documents4. provide for the development and dissemination ofAlaska Native literature5. train Alaska Native language speakers to work asteachers and aides in bilingual classrooms to teachand support Alaska’s twenty indigenous languages
    3. 3. Alaska Native Language Archive• Largest repository of ANL documentation• ~ 1500 linear ft. manuscripts, including nearlyeverything written in or about Alaska Nativelanguages• ~ 5000 recordings
    4. 4. Alaska Native Place Name project• Goal: create comprehensive database of Alaska Native placename documentation, whether official or not
    5. 5. Language Families in Alaska• Inuit (Eskimo-Aleut)• 5 languages• Na-Dene (Athabascan-Eyak-Tlingit)• 13 languages plus 30+ others in Canada and lower 48• Haida• Tsimshian
    6. 6. • GNIS lists 31,004 official (geographic) names in Alaska• Significant (but unknown) number of these are ofnative-origin• Total number of indigenous names much larger• Extrapolating from Ahtna region (234 names / m ha.)to the entire state we expect approx. 39,000 names• Probably a lower limit, since many coastalareas show much higher densities(e.g., King Island 163,000 / m ha.)Place names in Alaska
    7. 7. Official names approved in Alaska0501001502002501980s 1990s 2000sNativenon-Native
    8. 8. Native-origin names• Original names• Official with Anglicized spelling (Talkeetna)• Unofficial with Anglicized spelling (Denali)• Official with Anglicized spelling and English generic(Chena River)• Official with proper spelling and English generic(K’esugi Ridge)• Official with proper spelling (Troth Yeddha’)• Coined names• Native-origin but not traditional (Ashana Lake, Tsaani Creek)• Mis-placed Native names
    9. 9. Eliminating pejorative names• Native names provide an excellent source to replaceEnglish names which are considered pejorative• Tsaani Creek (Ahtna, 2009)• Tł’oo Hanshyah Mountain (Gwich’in, 2012)• Łochenyatth Creek (Lower Tanana, 2012)
    10. 10. Previously unnamed features• Actual Native names• K’esugi Ridge (Dena’ina, 2002)• Taq’ Nust’in Moutain (Dena’ina, 2008)• Ciissinraq River (Yup’ik, 2008)• Nen’ Yese’ Ridge (Ahtna, 2011)• G̲andláay Háanaa (Haida, 2012)• Hawadax Island (Aleut, 2012)• Troth Yeddha’ (Lower Tanana, 2012)• Thachkatnu (Dena’ina)• Coined names• Ashana Lake (Dena’ina, 2009)• Ch’akajabena Mountain (Dena’ina, 2005)• Mount Chichantna (Dena’ina, 1999)• Mount Nagishlamina (Dena’ina, 1999)
    11. 11. Anglicization• Changed from Łach Q’atnu by cartographer (Imus Geographics)• Then officially adopted based on Anglicization
    12. 12. Misplaced Native names• Many apparent “Native” names are not actually the correct namefor the feature• Ch’akajabena Mountain adopted in 2005, based on name fornearby lake• Proposal prompted change Chakachamna  Ch’akajabena Lake
    13. 13. Ch’akajabena MountainCh’akaja Bena Dghil’uMisplaced Native names
    14. 14. Ch’akajabena DghiluCh’akajatnuCh’akajabenaCh’akaja ‘tail extends out’Ch’akajabena LakeChakachatna River
    15. 15. Village Names• Atqasuk, ‘downslope’, replaces Meade River• Nuiqsut, ‘things speared’, replaces Nooiksut (should be Nuiqsat)• Nanwalek, ‘one with lagoon’, replaces English Bay• Nunam Iqua, ‘land’s end’, replaces Sheldons Point• Indigenous Peoples and Languages of Alaska map (2011) lists over250 village names in proper orthography
    16. 16. • GNIS lists 47 variants• 7 of these are Native names• Deenaalee (Koyukon)• Dinadhit (Lower Tanana)• Denaze (Upper Kuskokwim)• Denadhe (Holikachuk)• Dengadhiy (Deg Xinag)• Dghelaay Ce’e (Ahtna)• Dghelay Ka’a (Dena’ina)Denali
    17. 17. Native names are steeped in historyTroth Yeddha’
    18. 18. DeenaaleeDeenaalee Be’otNative names reflect a unique view of thelandscape
    19. 19. Official Native names• A more manageable program• Simple, straightforward strategy for creating databaseof Native names for officially named features1. Identify Native-origin names in GNIS database2. If name = Native name, flag it3. If variant = Native name, flag it4. Otherwise, add proper variant and flag it• Could be used to easily create a map with Nativenames or Native name variants• Could be done easily using existing knowledge
    20. 20. Talkeetna RiverVariantChunilna CreekI’delcuut Na’K’dalkitnuK’dalkitnu Tl’uTalkeet RiverTalkeetno RiverTalkitnuTalkutna RiverWhich is the correct Native name?
    21. 21. Talkeetna RiverVariant CitationChunilna Creek OrthI’delcuut Na’ Kari &Fall 2003K’dalkitnu Kari & Fall 2004K’dalkitnu Tl’u Kari & Fall 2003Talkeet River n/aTalkeetno River n/aTalkitnu OrthTalkutna River n/aIs it easier if we know the citation?
    22. 22. Cook InletBaie KenaiskaiaBaie de CookCook’s ArmCook’s InletCooks RiverDanseGroosgincloseKenai BayKenaiaskoi GolfeKenaischev TtunaiskychKenaiskischerKenaiskischev MeerbusenNutiNuti TikahtnuSund KenaiTika’atnuTikahtnuToo Chux BoghaZaliv Kenayskoy
    23. 23. Cook InletBaie KenaiskaiaBaie de CookCook’s ArmCook’s InletCooks RiverDanseGroosgincloseKenai BayKenaiaskoi GolfeKenaischev TtunaiskychKenaiskischerKenaiskischev MeerbusenNutiNuti TikahtnuSund KenaiTika’atnuTikahtnuToo Chux BoghaZaliv KenayskoyPossible Native names in bold; which is correct?
    24. 24. KuskokwimRiverChin-ana n/aDechena Nek’a Kari 1999Dechenaa Neege Kari 1999Dechenaa Neek’a Kari 1999Dechenaa No’ Kari 1999Dichinanek’ ANLA 2011Dichinanek’a Kari & Fall 2003Dichinano’ Kari 1999Degenegh Kari 1999Djenegh Kari 1999Kenaniq’ Kari 2007Kugikukvik River OrthKugikukwik River OrthKusququvak Jacobson 1984Ryka Kuskokvim OrthTtychannanika Kari & Fall 2003
    25. 25. Summary• There is growing public interest in Native names inAlaska• Existing resources are difficult to use and do notidentify the correct Native name• Creating a comprehensive gazetteer will be amonumental work (though see Bright 2004)• However, creating an authoritative reference for thoseplaces which already have official names (whetherNative or not) is a manageable task• Can be accomplished by simply recognizing “privileged”authoritative variant within GNIS