Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Restoring Indigenous Names to Alaskan Sites

C. Coimbra photo

During a recent walk along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, Dena'ina historian Aaron Leggett pointed to an area that was devastated during the massive Good Friday earthquake in 1964. Trees and houses on a mile-wide stretch of earth had come tumbling down.

Had Anchorage consulted Dena'ina geography, he said, the bluffs facing Cook Inlet may not have seemed like such a good location for a neighborhood. The Dena'ina name for that area is Nen GhiƂgedi, which he translates literally as "rotten land."

...As an adult, Leggett began asking questions about his cultural heritage, finding geographic knowledge particularly empowering.

...This year has brought some major accomplishments for advocates of restoring indigenous names. The Koyukon Athabascan name Denali officially replaced Mount McKinley as the name for Alaska's (and North America's) highest peak. The name of Wade Hampton, a slave owner and Confederate general, was dropped from a Western Alaska census area in favor of Kusilvak, a Yup'ik name for a local mountain range. And most recently, Teedriinjik and Ch’idriinjik became the official names for parts of an Arctic river system formerly designated Chandalar.

The trend seems likely to be bolstered by the introduction last month of what is set to become the state's first comprehensive atlas of Native place names.

Researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the National Snow and Ice Data Center have teamed up to consolidate a dozen geographic databases into a single interactive map.

Since environmental knowledge is embedded in Native place names, the atlas could become a tool for researching Alaska’s “biocultural diversity,” according to the National Science Foundation’s grant description.

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