JUNEAU – When the U.S. Forest Service’s revised map of the Juneau Icefield is printed next month, it will contain an original Tlingit place name for the first time: Tlaxhsatanjín, which can be translated as “idle hands” or “hands at rest.”
The federal U.S. Board of Geographic Names, the national authority on geographic names, unanimously approved the name at its March meeting. The name now appears in the Geographic Names Information System, the federal database of official geographic names that can be printed on federal maps and publications. The mountain to which it refers is a 3,610-foot peak located near Thunder Mountain in Juneau, above the Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School.
"It’s a change not necessarily for the Native community but for the non-Native community, and for governments to see there’s another way” to think about geographic names, said Xh’unei Lance Twitchell, professor of Alaska Native languages at the University of Alaska Southeast, who submitted the proposal to have the name made official.
Twitchell submitted the proposal after seeing that another proposal had been submitted — to name the peak at the end of Heintzleman ridge after Jon Scribner, an influential leader in state government in the 1970s and 80s who died in a hiking accident in 2005.
“It had nothing to do with the individual,” he said, but simply with showing that the peak already had a name.
The family and friends of Scribner, upon learning that the peak was not, in fact, unnamed, withdrew the proposal, and supported not only Twitchell’s proposal, but also the larger movement to get more Native place names made official.
Amanda Mallott, Scribner’s daughter, wrote a letter to the Board of Geographic names introducing herself in Tlingit and supporting the proposal to make the Tlingit name official. Born and raised in Juneau, Mallott was adopted into the Kwaashk’i Kwaan clan of Yakutat following her marriage to Anthony Mallott, son of Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott.
“We endorse the restoration of this mountain’s indigenous name and greatly appreciate the efforts of many to share the profound history and stories of place – haa aaní – this beautiful place we all call ‘home,’” she wrote. “Our husband, father and grandfather respected and embraced the understanding that people and place are deeply connected, and we would be so grateful to play a small part in advancing the initiative to restore this mountain to the history and characteristics of its original name ‘Tlaxhsatanjín.’”
“The whole process was just a reminder of life in a small town … and the connections we can make,” Twitchell said.
This is only the second time the federal database has entered a name with diacritical marks, which are essential for conveying the correct pronunciation of names in Tlingit, Haida and other languages.
In fact, it was a Haida name that paved the way for introducing diacritical marks in the federal database, said Robert Francis, the lead cartographer for the Alaska region of the U.S. Forest Service, who has been involved in naming processes for places on National Forest land.
In 2012, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names approved Gandláay Háanaa — with an underscore under the initial “G”— which means “beautiful stream” in Haida, for the name of a creek on Prince of Wales Island. The creek had had the unofficial name of “FUBAR Creek” displayed on a sign, an impolite acronym many local residents viewed as extremely disrespectful. Local tribal leaders, including the late Haida elder Viola Burgess, worked with the Forest Service to make the Haida name official, and the unofficial signage was replaced.
“It was really a groundbreaker,” Francis said. “The big thing is just making sure that the name of the place is fully honored. Names are very sensitive, and people take them to heart.”
Diacritical marks in a federal database may seem to be a tiny detail, but having the technology to print Native names correctly on official maps and documents lays the groundwork to more easily make Native names official in the future. (Even in this article, the underscored “x” in Tlaxhsatanjín appears as “xh” so the formatting is not lost between page and screen.)
And to learn to pronounce the name of a place correctly, people have to learn some basics of the Tlingit language, which Twitchell sees as an important part of revitalizing the language.
“It would shift our languages, because everyone’s learning (the names of) these places and seeing how the language functions,” Twitchell said.
He hopes this is the just the beginning of a much larger process of restoring Native names to the land.
“What I think the real story is, is how do we keep going,” Twitchell said. “One is something to celebrate, but … all these places have names.”
These names are documented in the extensive atlas of Tlingit place names “Haa Leelk’w Has Aan’ Saaxu: Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land,” compiled by Dr. Thomas Thornton, along with Harold Martin and a team of elders, published by Sealaska Heritage Institute in 2012.
The publication of the book spurred discussions and projects across the region, including a UAS map project integrating Tlingit place names and territories with a Google map, and the Lkóot – Jilkáat Storyboard project in Haines, which links Google map imagery with recordings and stories of each Tlingit place name.
“I think the next step is to work with our community leaders and our tribal leaders and figure out what the most pressing place names are,” Twitchell said. ‘The real goal is to break the system so someone has to figure out a better way to do this than one at time.”
Similar discussions are taking place across the state, and the upcoming meeting in Anchorage of the national Council of Geographic Names Authorities, an association of state and federal name authorities, will feature an Alaska Native place names workshop on April 29, sponsored by the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Bristol Bay Native Corporation.
Compared to Hawaii, where official place names have a much clearer link to the Hawaiian language, the process of naming places in Alaska seems to have been much more colonial, Twitchell said, with American settlers “showing up and naming things instead of asking people, ‘what’s that called?’”
‘When you go to Hawaii, you know that you’re there,” he said. “It also says that these languages have a place.”
The records of the decision to make official the name of Tlaxhsatanjín also document the request, which is honored, to not include English words like “mount” or “ridge” in the name, which would be disrespectful to the integrity and sovereignty of the Tlingit language.
Understanding place names in the context of the Tlingit language, and learning even the basics of how the Tlingit language works can benefit anyone who lives in this place, Twitchell said.
“It’s not going to do anyone a bit of harm to learn a bit of Tlingit,” he said. “We have wonderful groups of students who are out there and would be happy to have these conversations as well.”
“We’ve got an indigenous language that was literally born in this place. We want to remove that alienation and say it’s time to start learning.”
Details about some ongoing Tlingit place name projects, as well as a recording of the correct pronunciation of Tlaxhsatanjín, can be found at http://tlingitlanguage.com/placenames-2/. This language blog also contains many Tlingit language learning resources.
• To learn more about Gandláay Háanaa on Prince of Wales, visit http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2011/09/01/alaska-beautiful-st...
• To read Mandy Mallott’s My Turn, “‘Unnamed’ peak already has name,” visit http://juneauempire.com/letters/2014-06-24/%E2%80%98unnamed-peak%E2%80%9...
• For more on the atlas of Tlingit place names, visit http://juneauempire.com/art/2012-04-19/new-kind-atlas-southeast and http://www.sealaskaheritage.org/shop/book_grandparents_names_2012.htm
• For more on the Lkóot – Jilkáat Storyboard project in Haines, visit http://cvstoryboard.org/