Historic maps back in Alaska

Posted: Monday, September 13, 2010

Those who study history know the importance of keeping it alive. This is the reason a group of historical maps have finally been brought back to Alaska after an absence of more than a century.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Historian John Cloud of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Central Library in Silver Spring, Md. provided copies from two map sets to research assistant professor Alice Taff at the University of Alaska Southeast.

Cloud explained while these maps were drawn in Alaska around the late 1800s, they were moved to Washington, D.C. in 1899 and have not been seen in their state of origin until now.

He said this these are important tools in history's role in cultural survival and cultural reestablishment. He said understanding ones cultural history is vital to this.

One of the maps was drawn by the Tlingit leader Kohklux, along with his two wives. Kohklux was a leader at Klukwan and drew out a set of maps around 1869 for scientist George Davidson. The one now with Taff covers around 400 miles from the Lynn Canal to the Yukon River.

"This is a major thoroughfare between the Pacific Ocean to the Bering Sea," Cloud said.

While Cloud brought copies of all the maps in Kohklux' series, he donated the others to a museum in Haines before arriving here.

The others he brought come from a five-piece set drawn by Inupiat Eskimo Joe Kakaryook sometime before 1898. They cover a wide range, from the Bering Sea coast to most of the Yukon River. The maps were drawn for the benefit of the Coast Survey, which would eventually evolve into NOAA, the U.S. Fish Commission and the Weather Bureau.

Cloud said Kakaryook was from Port Clarence, which helped him become familiar with these areas and others that he traveled. One of his maps covers almost 1,000 miles.

Cloud explained that the influence of these early Alaska charts was an important part of building frameworks for future mapping.

"The important thing is the Coast Survey incorporated this cartography into their own charts," he said.

But it wasn't the maps' past influences that persuaded Cloud to bring them back here. It was what they meant to the observers today, particularly to those in Alaska who can identify with the names that appear on them.

By coincidence, these intentions came to fruition almost immediately. Right after unrolling one of these maps for the first time in the UAS cafeteria, a student stopped by to look and instantly made a connection.

Cameron Piscoya, an environmental science student from Nome, was drawn to a specific area on Kakaryook's diagram. He said his Native tribe is from Solomon and his grandmother was born in Mary's Igloo.

"This is especially why I brought the maps back. So people like him can have access to them," said Cloud.

Above all, Piscoya was impressed the names on the map near these areas and Teller were the same ones he knew.

"These guys can attest these are the right place names," Cloud said of Piscoya and other students.

Cloud noted that one of the most amazing things about these maps is that they were all done from memory and observation, a far cry from today's advanced mapping technologies. Even so, they still carry a great amount of detail and accuracy with names and locations. Cloud also noted the budding geography present, especially on Kohklux' map.

The digital copies were also enhanced through Photoshop so place names would appear more legibly.

Taff, who teaches Alaska Native languages, is glad that the maps have found a home back in Alaska.

"I think it's important for students to see their ancestors' knowledge being recognized and honored," she said.

The digital copies still have an aura of authenticity, from being the same size as the originals to showing when the threads of the original linens glued to the papers are evident, as are aged colors.

Kakaryook remains a big part of Cloud's research with these maps. Cloud said one point was to recognize him as the cartographer since he's not named as such.

Another study of his involves where the Eskimo went after the maps were completed and taken to Washington.

"Part of my task now is to find out what happened to Joe."

• Contact Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.

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