Commentary — Alaska Place Name Changes: There is Always Room to Do What’s Right

Alaska Place Name Changes: There is Always Room to Do What’s Right

A Response by Myles Creed and Cordelia Kellie

Restoring Native American names to geographic features is trending. A flurry of name changes has taken place in Alaska this summer. This raises important questions.How will we know when we’ve gone too far, and is any Native American place name preferable to one concocted after Columbus sailed the ocean blue?”

“Native Americans had a very different culture from which to draw names, which means that place names, even when translated, sometimes make little sense today.”

“I was one of those who applauded the restoration of Denali, and I can get on board with the other Native American names recently assigned. I just wonder if or when the restoration of “original” names will eventually run out of steam. Because I have been compiling my own list of righteous name changes…After we run out of Native American names for geographic features, we can start renaming subdivisions. Meadow View, for instance, could be called Forty-six Closely Packed Duplexes.”

About a week and a half ago, an opinion piece appeared in Alaska Dispatch News about indigenous place name changes. This is a response to respectfully provide balance to the ideas shared in that commentary.

Alaska is a place unlike anywhere else. The number of distinct peoples, groups, cultures, languages and dialects speaks to the richness that exists within our borders. One of the most evident ways this richness manifests itself is in our place names, which tell the story of our land.

Recent statewide efforts to enhance the presence of that story by making an increased number of Alaska locations in indigenous orthography officially recognized have been met with both immense excitement and considerable criticism; however, when proposals in favor of renaming are met with skepticism, it demonstrates an underlying feeling of inequality in our state.

A little over a year ago, when House Bill 216 was signed and passed, 20 of Alaska’s indigenous languages were recognized as holding official status. The intent of the bill was to recognize Alaska’s languages as being equivalent to English, after decades of being told that these languages were inferior. But the bill’s intent will not be manifested until Alaska’s original languages are actually given even footing in important realms such as place naming.

Reclaiming place names is not just a geographic or environmental topic, but also an issue of deep historical and cultural significance, relating to historical trauma, colonization and decolonization, the missionary era and a long history of Alaska Natives being told that indigenous ways are wrong, sinful, or inadequate.

Naming indicates authority, validity, and speaks to those who are in command or in power. Even posing the question of when Alaska will go too far implies that there is something inherently iniquitous with an indigenous name. There is always time and space to increase equality in our state.

There can be endless discussion about the mechanics of translation and how some names might not make sense to those who have settled here, but original naming conventions have immense significance to those who have always called these lands home, including encapsulating important information about the history, usage and characters of the geographic features.

When these names are not represented officially or in an orthography that is true to the language, that history can become diluted or lost entirely. A good example of this is Chester Creek, which comes from the Dena’ina name Chanshtnu, meaning “grass creek.” Ignoring true orthography or pronunciation can literally strip an indigenous connection away from a place name; without proper orthography, we are misled to believe that Chester Creek is a Western place name.

Is there a concern that indigenous names will be be difficult for English speakers to pronounce? Yes. But at its heart, it’s an opportunity to look at the issue of renaming with a renewed perspective and learn something new about the state we live in.  When a person moves to a place where other languages are spoken, such as Germany, Italy or Japan, it shows respect to learn even some of the language there; when a person moves to Alaska, we should show that same respect. We cannot continue to treat indigenous languages as if they are foreign, when English is the language that has been introduced. We Alaskans are so adaptive and resilient. We must acknowledge that we have the capacity to learn names like Łach Q’atnu or Teedriinjik. If Alaska Natives all over the state were able to command a language originating in an island northwest of Europe, the greater community living in Alaska can stand to learn a few words.

We have the incredible opportunity to shape how our cultures are represented and what that representation is saying to youth across the state. When a young person doesn’t see that the language of their people in the actual labeling of their own land, their language is regarded as peripheral, and it can have very real effects on the esteem a growing person has for their culture and the implicitly learned bias of what is good, bad, and who decides. There have been dark chapters in the recent timeline of Alaska Native history. For many, place naming is the steady reclaiming of an acknowledgement of what’s been lost and of having even a modicum of ownership of their land. In this way, place naming is about healing and reconciliation over what has happened in Alaska’s past.

Alaska’s first languages are severely endangered. The fact that there are only a handful of fluent Dena’ina speakers speaks to why recognition of indigenous place names is so essential, as individuals and communities fight to bring these languages back. Much has already been lost, but each indigenous place name that is superseded by an introduced one gives one less opportunity for us to learn how to say something in Dena’ina or in Inupiaq or in Tlingit.

There’s no need to worry about running out of indigenous names for the geographic features of this land; we have an abundance of them. But what we also need is an abundance of willingness for those names to be recognized on a more equal footing in line with the co-official status of our languages so that they are not disregarded and forgotten. We hope that all Alaskans can help move our state forward by recognizing place naming efforts as a necessary next step after the passage of HB 216 in fostering to a more equitable state.

Cordelia Kellie advocates for Alaska Native affairs and writes for Nalliq, an online repository for indigenous issues. Myles Creed is an Anchorage educator, raised in Kotzebue and  involved in language revitalization efforts.

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