Controversy erupted in Juneau about 20 years ago when the town’s new middle school tried to venture into uncharted territory — giving a Tlingit name to a public place.
As assistant principal at the time, Ronalda Cadiente Brown remembers how important it was to her and a core committee of people to name the school after a place with a traditional Tlingit name. Some dissenters viewed using a Tlingit place name as an insult, others thought it would be too difficult to pronounce. The school’s staff also was torn, she said.
As both an Alaska Native and a lifelong Juneauite, Brown felt the conflict intensely, she said.
“Attitudes around race were always very subtle and you could always feel it, especially if you crossed boundaries,” Brown said. “For me, being in the center, leading the committee, it simply bubbled up what had long been an undercurrent within our community.”
There were angry calls and hate mail, letters to the editor and disgruntled listeners on KINY’s “Problem Corner,” Brown said. But despite pushback from many different groups of people, Brown’s committee settled on a name: D’zantiki Heeni, the original name of Gold Creek. Loosely translated, the name means “where the flounder gather,” she said.
“It was probably one of the first Tlingit names used in our community,” Brown said. “Linguist and former state poet laureate “Richard Dauenhauer was concerned about the very fact that people would shorten it to ‘DZ.’ Unfortunately, he was right.”
Since the school was named, Alaska Natives have taken issue with the shortening of “Dzantik’i Heeni” to “DZ,” she said. Now, even after 20 years, DHMS principal Molly Yerkes said she’s had many discussions with Native community members about the popular abbreviation.
“They said, ‘We’re really proud of the meaning of that name, and it’s kind of a slap in the face for it to be shortened to ‘DZ.’” Yerkes said. People have approached her “not in a negative way. They felt, ‘We’re really proud that this name was chosen and we want it to be used.’”
Yerkes said the school makes sure to put its full name on all of its letterhead and apparel. All fifth grade students and parents are taught the meaning and history of “Dzantik’i Heeni” in middle school orientation. A full explanation, including a guide on how to pronounce it — “ZAN TEH KA HEENI” — is included in the student handbook. And, if a teacher feels the moment is right, he or she will correct a student who has said “DZ,” Yerkes said.
“Our teachers all use it (“Dzantik’i Heeni”),” she said. And the number of students who use it, too, is growing, she said. She’s seen improved use of the full name community-wide since she started working for the district 13 years ago. “Probably 50 percent of students say ‘Dzantik’i Heeni.’”
Barbara Cadiente-Nelson, Brown’s sister, a member of Sealaska’s Board of Directors and a grants administrator for the school district, said shortening the name might seem like no big deal, but it’s disrespectful to Native culture, past and present. She said she’s had conversations with Yerkes about the school’s name.
“Our language is a representation; it’s much more than just a name,” Cadiente-Nelson said. “It represents place, it represents lineage, it represents past, it represents people. There’s no sidestepping or shortcutting that.”
Having Tlingit names in the community pays respect to a group that has long been ignored, she said.
“That goes for all of our schools that have an indigenous name,” Cadiente-Nelson said. “It’s honor and acknowledgement that’s long overdue. And it’s one that shows a growth of us to be more than tolerant of one another, more than accepting of one another — to be respectful of one another.”
Brown said she’s noticed the community has embraced the school’s full name more and more over the years. This is a far cry from a low point in the school naming controversy, when Brown found a copy of a hateful poem in each DHMS teacher’s mailbox before school started one day, she said.
“People probably have more pride and interest in the language,” Brown said. “I’d like to think that taking those first steps in bringing the language forward is something that’s benefitted our community.”
• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.