Native place Names

Offering clues to Juneau's past

Posted: Sunday, March 03, 2002

The city of Juneau is fortunate to have retained some of its Tlingit place names, and, in certain cases, to have revived others. Newcomers soon master the pronunciation of "Dzantik'i Heeni" or "Kowee" and come to relish each syllable as proof they're not just passing through, but settling in.

More often than not, indigenous place names are lost because indigenous languages die out or are replaced by new words taken from the languages of explorers, conquerors and settlers. On occasion, indigenous place names are assigned literal translations in the new language.

Nevertheless, where they survive, indigenous place names open interesting windows into the thoughts and culture of the past. Original place names often describe landmarks or the geographical setting, acting as footnotes to a mental map. Or they memorialize the name of a notable structure, event, encounter or resource associated with the place. Here are local examples:


This is the original Tlingit name of the lower portion of Gold Creek and means "where the flatfish gather." "Flatfish" is sometimes translated as "flounder." The Goldbelt shareholder newsletter of November and December 1991 breaks down the word into these elements: Dzanti (flounder), k'i (little) and heen (water), and notes that the upper part of the stream was called It' ji Shaanax.

The words are sometimes considered the original name of Juneau because the first prospectors settled near the mouth of the creek. Long before other people came, Tlingits harvested dog salmon, humpies, coho and steelhead here, using smokehouses to preserve the fish for winter.

Charlotte Wright, now the instructional services coordinator for the school district, was principal of Dzantik'i Heeni when the name was chosen.

"It was a fascinating debate in the community," Wright said. "We had a drop box where people could put options. One meant 'porcupine den' because there was a big den up the hill and porcupines were considered a delicacy. Another meant 'chewing water' because on the flats below when the dog salmon spawn, they seem to mouth the water."

Spin-offs: Built in 1994, Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School used its state-mandated One Percent for Art money to install a concrete walk in front of the school bearing casts of flatfish. The walk was designed by Washington state artists Laura Berkley and Linda Withington, with brass sea creature molds cast by Peter Bevis.


The term means "lake." It was applied to a tribe of Tlingit Indians (properly, the Auk-Kwaan) who occupied a territory embracing the north end of Admiralty Island, Douglas Island and the mainland from Juneau north to Berners Bay. When Father John Veniaminov conducted a census in this area in 1835, he counted 100 Auks and 150 Takus. He estimated the smallpox epidemic of the previous year had carried off 65 percent of the population.

Spin-offs: The 19th-century village of the Auk tribe 13 miles northwest of downtown Juneau was called Ak aan, or "lake town," because it was located on a lake (the lake next to the University of Alaska Southeast campus). Spin-offs include Auke Bay, Auke Cape, Auke Cove, Auke Creek, Auke Glacier, Auke Mountain, Auke Nu Cove. "Nu" is said to mean "fort."

The original name has been used by a number of modern entities, including Auke Bay Bible Church, Auke Bay Ferry Terminal, Auke Bay Co-Op Pre-School, Auke Bay Gardens, Auke Bay Hideaway B&B, Auke Bay Inn, Auke Bay Kayak Rentals, and Auke Bay Sportfishing and Sightseeing.


This was the name of an Auk Tlingit chief, spelled Kowee, Kow-eeh, or Cowee. In October 1880, Chief Kowee guided prospectors Joe Juneau and Dick Harris to gold deposits in what is now known as Silver Bow Basin along what is now called Gold Creek, the stream that runs through the center of modern Juneau. The deposits turned out to be one of the largest lodes of gold quartz in the world.

Spin-offs: There are two Kowee Creeks. One flows into Gastineau Channel from Douglas Island, near the Douglas end of the Douglas Bridge. The mouth of this creek is said to have been the site of his summer home. These creeks were probably named after the fact, Peter Metcalfe said.

"Western culture names things after individuals, but the Tlingits did not do that," said Metcalfe, who has provided communication services for Native organizations throughout Southeast Alaska for more than 20 years. He wrote and directed "Voice of Our Ancestors," a one-hour documentary of the first Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian Celebration (1982).

Tradition has it that Kowee was cremated on March 2, 1892, after his body lay in state for three days. The cremation spot is marked. It can be seen a few yards off Glacier Avenue, across the street from Harborview Elementary School, at the lower end of Evergreen Cemetery. The graves of Harris and Juneau lie at the upper end of the cemetery.


The Tlingit phrase means "house of knowledge" and was suggested as the name for Juneau's alternative high school by elder Anna Katzeek. The school was begun in 1995 as a collaboration between the Juneau School District and the South East Regional Resource Center, said Ronalda Cadiente, principal of the school for the last four years. The name was adopted in 1999, with staff and students participating in the selection. Students regularly employ a shortened version of the name, "Yakoos," Cadiente said. But when the receptionist answers the phone, he uses the entire phrase.

Cadiente has been studying this oral language, and, with the assistance of linguists Richard and Nora Dauenhauer, analyzes the phrase this way: yaa (along), koos (inside the mind), ge (knowledge) daaka (around the), hidi (house, from "hit").


This is the name assigned a residential street below Thunder Mountain in the Mendenhall Valley. Deyi apparently means "toward," "at the end of" or, more loosely, "street." The name may have something to do with blueberry fields or blueberry trails, but Tlingit elder Cecelia Kunz was unsure without a context.

"Sometimes words sound the same, but they have different meanings in a sentence," Kunz said.

City planner Mark Jaqua did some digging and found that kanat'a does indeed mean "blueberry fields," and was chosen for the street by the Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority, which platted the subdivision about 1993. Kanat'a Deyi dovetails neatly with the name of the subdivision, Si' t' Tuwan, which means "by (or near) the glacier."

One should never call it Kanat'a Deyi Street, because that would be redundant, Jaqua noted.


The word is said to mean "salmon storehouse" and to refer to a specific tribe of Tlingit people. It derives from the name of a Tlingit village, now abandoned, on the Chilkat Peninsula, two miles south of the center of Haines and 18 miles south-southwest of Skagway. Early spellings include Chilkaht, Tschilkat, Tchillkat, Tsl-kaht, Tschilkathin, and T'silkat.

Spin-offs: The Chilkat Range, 26 miles west of Juneau, obviously is not in Juneau proper but is an integral expanse of the mountain scenery on the horizon. Spin-offs include: Chilkat Creek, Chilkat Glacier (in British Columbia), Chilkat Inlet, Chilkat Islands (at the north end of Lynn Canal), Chilkat Lake, Chilkat Peak, Chilkat Peninsula and Chilkat Range.


At the beginning of the 20th century, this word was variously spelled Tomgas, Tont-a-quans, Tungass, Tungass-kon and Tanga'sh. "It's the name of a group of people," said anthropologist Rosita Worl.

Spin-offs: Port Tongass, Tongass Island, Tongass Narrows, Tongass National Forest (created by presidential proclamation Sept. 10, 1907), Tongass Passage, Tongass Reef. Fort Tongass was established in June 1868 at the former Tlingit Indian village named for the island, and maintained until September 1870. The village was on the east coast of Tongass Island.


Taku means "(place) where geese gather" or "where geese set down." It is named for the subsistence resource (wild Canada geese) that the shores of this inlet afford seasonally. According to Sealaska Heritage Institute, the word is thought to be derived from this contraction: T'aawak (Canada geese) la (a classifier) and ku (flood tide), or "geese brought in on the tide."

The mouth of Taku Inlet is a local favorite for fishing for salmon, Dolly Varden and halibut, and for whale-watching. The river that flows from British Columbia, Canada, into Alaska is also named Taku.

"A common misconception is that it means 'place of the north wind,' but that's not true," said Metcalfe, who suspects the error originates in a confusion with the phenomenon of Taku winds.

Spin-offs: The Coast Survey steamer Taku (c. 1899), Taku Glacier, Taku Harbor, Taku Hill, Taku Inlet, Taku Lake, Taku Lodge, Taku Mountain, Taku Point, Taku Range, and Taku Towers (peaks in the Taku Range, 21 miles north of Juneau).

Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute (formerly Sealaska Heritage Foundation), said she hoped Tlingit names might be revived, especially for locations like Glacier Bay, an important subsistence site for the Chookaneidi and Hoonah people.

"One of the things that has always disturbed me is that we name glaciers - and now ferries - after explorers," Worl said. "I wrote a letter to the lieutenant governor about this, but it is an issue I have not been able to press. It speaks to colonialism."

Note: Some of the material above came from the Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, Geological Survey Professional Paper 567 (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1971 revised edition).

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