What's In a Name? Sealaska Heritage Institute Works to Preserve Native Alaskan History (KTVA.com exclusive)
ALASKA – Dzantik’i Héeni: The words mean “Flounder at the base of the creek,” and on a map they refer to the wooded area east of Alaska’s capital city.
The Tlingit phrase is one of more than 3,000 memorialized in a recently published atlas of Native Alaskan place names released by the Sealaska Heritage Institute. President Rosita Worl said the names denote everything from geographical markers to cultural uses and resources.
“Native people from Southeast Alaska always say, ‘We have lived on this land since time immemorial,’” said Worl by phone from her Juneau office Thursday. “This really demonstrates that they were using the land extensively, they knew the land, they had a close relationship to the land.”
She said she also has personal ties to both the land and the massive scholastic undertaking.
“I will tell you, when I’m out fishing around Juneau, and I look up the canal towards the Chilkat Mountains, I know my people have been there for thousands of years,” she said in a softly accented voice. “It’s a very humbling feeling.”
Compiled by Dr. Thomas Thornton and hundreds of collaborators, “Haa Léelk’w Hás Aaní Saax’ú: Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land” includes traditional Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian Eyak, Chugach and Athabaskan phrases. The book includes pictures, maps and narratives from each traditional community territory throughout Southeastern Alaska.
Worl said it’s just the first step in the Institute’s push to promote cultural restoration over preservation. Recently, Institute members traveled to the British Museum in London to bring back information and photos of Native Alaskan artifacts displayed there as part of a process dubbed “visual repatriation.”
But the traditional place names themselves represented just a fraction of the region’s cultural significance. Worl said future publications would delve into the crafts and artistic designs associated with different locations, as well as traditional songs and stories unique to each site.
The cultural knowledge gleaned through the study of place names would then be incorporated into the Institute’s educational materials and curriculum, but Worl said she believed it had other uses, too. By comparing traditional Native Alaska place names to present-day geographical features, Worl said scientists could pinpoint important environmental shifts.
“I want to go through all of those names and say, what changes can we see in the environment?” she said.
The work could take decades: After all, Worl said it took twenty years and an estimated $250,000 to compile the atlas of place names.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us, but that’s out job,” she said, laughing.
She said it was worth it.