10 May 2012
A landmark atlas of indigenous place names in Southeast Alaska has been published by the Sealaska Heritage Institute marking 20 years of research by Dr Thomas Thornton.
The book - Haa Léelk’w Hás Aaní Saax’ú: Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land - documents more than 3,000 Native place names and their geographic and cultural associations in Southeast Alaska. A culmination of two decades of research, it represents the most comprehensive study of its kind, compiled in collaboration with hundreds of people, including area Tribes and Elders. Tlingit leader Harold Martin (pictured with Thornton below) administered several of the place name data gathering project s on behalf of the Southeast Native Subsistence Commission, and wrote an essay for the book.
The vast majority of place names in the book are of Tlingit origin. But there are also Haida place names, and some Tsimshian, Eyak, Chugach and Athabaskan names. The chapters are organized by kwáan, traditional community territories which roughly correspond to modern community areas. Each chapter includes a narrative and concludes with a map showing place name locations along with a table listing the Native names, translations and locations.
Native place names differ from English place names, which often are biographical and commemorate people, said Thornton, noting the vast majority of Native place names are descriptive.
"There’s the literal translation and there are all of these associations that people are aware of. They can be historical events, they can be natural resources that are associated with the places, personal memories, clan histories, mythological events, all of those things are tied to place, and that was really the fundamental way that history was recorded," Thornton said.
Many of the people who contributed to the book have since Walked into the Forest, and if not for this research, the place names would have died with them, said SHI President Rosita Worl, who wrote the Preface to the book.
Thornton and local researchers collected the information in two ways: by recording names recalled by Elders in communities throughout Southeast Alaska over many years and by compiling place names documented in the past by scholars such as Frederica de Laguna, Thomas Waterman and others. The names compiled by early chroniclers were often spelled in unorthodox ways, making them difficult to decipher and re-elicit. That alone was a massive research task.
The book has received many accolades, including from Professor Richard Dauenhauer, a prominent scholar of Tlingit history, language and culture. He called it “the first successful attempt to gather all the indigenous place names of Southeast Alaska.”
"It is the most complete list of all known place names collected and published to date. It is the new benchmark against which all future work will be measured," said Dauenhauer.
School of Geography and the Environment Cartographer, Ailsa Allen, helped produce the final maps for the book.
- Sealaska Institute releases cultural atlas – April 27th - Washington Examiner
- Place names book document southeast Alaska history - Ktoo news public radio – 27th April
- A new kind of atlas for Southeast – Juneau Empire, April 19th
- New book is guide to Native-language place names in Southeast – Anchorage Daily News
- Alaska Native languages: It all comes down to choices – Juneau Empire - April 26th