FAIRBANKS — During the first week of school in August 2010, students in an eighth grade physical science class at Randy Smith Middle School made a startling discovery. There were racist names on an Alaska topographic map.
Students were moving through various stations, set up by teacher Jayne Naze, outlining the different topics to be covered during the term when student Trent Johns noticed the derogatory place name, “Negrohead Creek,” near Minto, on a U.S. Geological Survey topographic map.
“That’s racist,” he said aloud, garnering the attention of his classmates.
“I first thought he (Trent) was kidding, and I went over to see if it actually was true,” Tayllor Geil said.
Hannah Henry, also recalled the day. “Everyone ran over to look at it and decided that it was pretty racist and wanted to change it,” she said.
The students concerns weren’t wasted on Naze, who began brainstorming on how to turn the discovery into “a teaching moment.”
Naze’s first action was to enlist the help of Tonya Brown, a black-Native teacher at Randy Smith, who was the school’s graduation success coach at the time.
Brown also was aghast that such an offensive epithet remained on state and federal maps and began making calls and researching how to change it.
At the time, neither teacher had any idea of the time and paperwork hurdles that lay ahead.
Now, almost two years later, the Negrohead place names, previously noted as Niggerhead, until they became sanitized across the board in the mid-1960s, are now officially listed by their age-old Athabascan names.
The place name Negrohead Creek, in Minto Flats, has been replaced with its original Athabascan name Lochenyatth Creek, which translates to “grassy tussocks,” in the lower Tanana Athabascan language.
In addition, another derogatory Interior place name, researched by the eighth grade students, Negrohead Mountain, northeast of the village of Chalkyitsik, also has been changed to its original Athabascan designation Tl’oo Khanishyah Mountain which translates to “grassy tussocks” in the Gwich’in Athabascan language.
The name changes were recently finalized by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names and will appear as such in state and federal maps and in the Geographic Names Information System database.
Throughout the place name change process, Naze and Brown were supported by Robert Charlie, an Athabascan from Minto, who has worked for years on a mapping project to correctly identify Athabascan place names throughout the Minto Flats area, and James Kari, a University of Alaska Fairbanks professor emeritus of linguistics.
The men shared source references with the teachers and helped in writing up the necessary forms for the place name changes that were submitted to the Alaska Historical Commission to be approved before being sent to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names for consideration.
The proposed place name changes also were sent to the tribal governments in the Interior for approval.
Both Charlie and Kari visited Naze’s classroom at different times and shared with students the history of Alaska place names that have been used for thousands of years by Alaska’s First People.
“They (students) were really enthusiastic about talking about Athabascan place names,” Kari said. “It is a really interesting knowledge system.”
Although place names were unwritten, Kari explained, they were memorized, and shared and remain remarkably consistent across language and dialect, with maybe slight changes in pronunciation.
Five of the original eighth grade class members, who will enter 10th grade in August, gathered recently to talk about how their initial indignation at defamatory place names was taken seriously by their teachers, and acted upon, and are now abolished, replaced by traditional Athabascan names.
It took a child’s eye to catch this, and a child’s voice to get things changed,” Roberts said.
Henry summed up the students’ feelings with, “It’s pretty cool.”
The teacher’s advice to students when they see injustice: “Say something. Do something or tell somebody.”