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SHI publishes atlas of Native place names

Author Thornton will be in Juneau at noon Friday in the lobby of the Sealaska building

Posted: April 12, 2012 - 12:00am

Sealaska Heritage Institute has published a landmark book documenting more than 3,000 Native place names and their locations in Southeast Alaska.

Nearly 20 years in the making, “Haa Léelk’w Hás Aaní Saax’ú: Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land,” compiled by Thomas Thornton, is the most comprehensive study of its kind.

SHI will host a book signing with Thornton from noon to 1 pm, Friday, April 13, in the lobby of the Sealaska building in Juneau.

Thornton worked on the book in collaboration with hundreds of people, including area tribes and elders, under several grants administered by Harold Martin through the Southeast Native Subsistence Commission and Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.

Many of the people who contributed to the book have since “walked into the forest,” and if not for this research, the place names would have died with them, said SHI President Rosita Worl.

“If they had not begun this work 20 years ago we would not have the benefit of this vast knowledge,” Worl said.

The vast majority of place names in the book are of Tlingit origin. But there are also Haida place names, and some Tsimshian Eyak, Chugach and Athabaskan names. The chapters are organized by kwáan, traditional community territories which roughly correspond to modern community areas. Each chapter includes a narrative and concludes with a map showing place name locations along with a table listing the Native names, translations and locations.

Native place names differ from English place names, which often are biographical and commemorate people, said Thornton, noting the vast majority of Native place names are descriptive.

“There’s the literal translation and there are all of these associations that people are aware of. They can be historical events, they can be natural resources that are associated with the places, personal memories, clan histories, mythological events, all of those things are tied to place, and that was really the fundamental way that history was recorded,” Thornton said.

“It’s so much more than just a place name,” said Worl, who is Tlingit. “It’s tied to our social fabric, our social identity, our world view, how we see the world, how our ancestors were using different sites.”

For example, the English place name “Juneau” commemorates Joe Juneau, a gold miner. One of the Tlingit names for the Juneau area is Dzantik’i Héeni (Flounder at the Base of the Creek), the name for the area today known as Gold Creek, Thornton said.

“And the name — Dzantik’i Héeni — actually refers to the flounder that were said to be in the vicinity of the creek. And, again it’s a descriptive name and describes probably a subsistence activity that people engaged in,” he said.

Another major theme that arose from the research is the environmental change documented in the names. For example, the Tlingit name for Glacier Bay is Sít’ Eetí Geeyí, which translates as Bay in Place of the Glacier.

“In Tlingit it’s a much more descriptive name and it actually tells you about the geomorphological processes that are unfolding in Glacier Bay where the glacier is retreating and the bay is taking its place. So that to me signifies the capacity of Tlingit to describe geographic phenomena. And that’s evident all throughout the geographic nomenclature,” he said.

One story in the book recounted by Johnny C. Jackson of Kake tells of a great flood that forced people into the Interior. They migrated back several generations later after the water receded and even though many of the travelers had never seen their homeland, they were able to recognize places by the picturesque Tlingit names that had been passed down.

Thornton and local researchers collected the information in two ways: by recording names recalled by elders in communities throughout Southeast Alaska over many years and by compiling place names documented in the past by scholars such as Frederica de Laguna and others. The names compiled by early chroniclers were often spelled in unorthodox ways, rather than in the common orthographies of today, making them difficult to decipher and re-elicit. That alone was a massive research task.

The book has received accolades from people, including Richard Dauenhauer, a prominent scholar of Tlingit history, language and culture. He called it “the first successful attempt to gather all the indigenous place names of Southeast Alaska.”

“It is the most complete list of all known place names collected and published to date. It is the new benchmark against which all future work will be measured,” said Dauenhauer.

“Restoring Tlingit place names and their meanings will root our people in place and decolonize the landscape, and Thornton has provided us with a fundamental tool to do exactly that. Sh tóogaa xat ditee — I am grateful,” said Lance Twitchell, a Tlingit language teacher at the University of Alaska Southeast.

The book includes a note to the reader by Harold Martin, who was instrumental in guiding the project through all stages and took an active role in the research process, and a foreword by Worl. It was co-published with the University of Washington Press and received funding from the National Park Service Heritage Grant program, SHI, and Juneau resident Mike Blackwell. The cover art is by Clarissa Rizal and the book was designed and edited by Michael Travis. The book is available in paperback ($30) and hardcover ($60). Thornton will be in Juneau at noon on Friday, April 13, for a book signing in the lobby of the Sealaska building.

Thornton is Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Environmental Change and Management Program at the Environmental Change Institute, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford. He has conducted numerous studies in Alaska and wrote Being and Place Among the Tlingit, which was published in 2008 by the UWP in association with SHI.

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private, nonprofit founded in 1980 to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars. Its mission is to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska.

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