From Richard Carstensen:

Culture embedded in nature

For the past 30 years, I’ve grown steadily more fascinated by Tlingit and Haida geography; the history and migrations of kwáans, clans, and houses, and the ways in which natural and cultural history intersect. From February to May, 2013, I participated in a course for high school students by Goldbelt Heritage Foundation, entitled Why do we live here?

Our essential question; What factors went into the selection of village sites for Áak’w and T’aakú ancestors? One of the most powerful educational experiences of my career, it deepened my interest in the locations of ancient settlements. I now feel that these are the most important places in Southeast Alaska for all of us to know and understand.

In coming years I hope to substantially expand this section of juneaunature on Tlingit geography and history. Even from my limited perspective as a Southeast naturalist, the subject has so many fruitful avenues of investigation.

Showing all 7 results

More Information

About Bears

This short book, About Bears, covers the natural history and behavior of North American bears.  Whether you're looking for a scientific overview of bears, a specific analysis of bear-human interactions around Juneau, or cultural reflections on our Ursus friends, this booklet will prove useful.


Download Here (3.5MB):PDF_Download

Auke Lake Trail Interpretive Signs

This three-part sign array offers information on the natural history, geology, and bio-culture of the Auke Lake Trail. You can download the three signs below:

Introduction (3MB): PDF_Download

Geology (2MB): PDF_Download

Bioculture (2MB): PDF_Download


Fall 1999 Newsletter: No Name Bay and other misnomers

Discovery Southeast’s Fall 1999 newsletter has a great essay on the prevalence of non-native places names in Southeast Alaska.

A wonderful piece by Kathy Hocker discusses the importance of outdoor education for our community.

Download here (5MB): PDF_Download



Naming our home

Name as story; name as narcissism

By Richard Carstensen
Over the past few years, I have grown increasingly interested in cultural differences in the way we name landscape features. Following are a pair of essays I wrote as part of a course manual for a 2013 high school class called Why do we live here: factors in village site selection, for Goldbelt Heritage Foundation.

Naming our home

Scientists adhere to a competitive but historically sensible convention for names designating genus and species. If a taxonomist can demonstrate that a plant or animal was once officially christened by an earlier Latin binomial, that Genus-species combination supplants the latecomer, whose authors, obviously, applied inadequate rigor to scouring archives for name precedence. Namers of places should consider emulating this Linnaean protocol.

In my writing since publication of Haa L’éelk’w Hás Aani Saax’ú: Our grandparents’ names on the land (Thornton & Martin eds. 2012), I’ve used Tlingit place names, followed by their translation in italic, and IWGN (important white guy name) in parentheses. Euro-names, however regal or preemptive, were afterthoughts. Example: Kadigooni X’áat’, island with spring water (Spuhn Island).

Having used this place-naming convention now for several years, for consulting work at Dzantik’i Héeni, little-flounder creek(Juneau), Aangóon, isthmus town (Angoon), Deishú, end of the trail (Haines), Xunaa, lee of north wind, (Hoonah) and southern Tàan, sea lion (Prince of Wales Island), I can report that—far from imposing tedium, or impeding the flow of expression—these researches and reappointments have brought landscapes to life.

Hopefully readers feel the same. I recommend this convention (or similar naming protocol) to any Southeast Alaskan writer or communicator who seeks stronger connection with our lands and waters. It would especially be an enlightening practice and research opportunity for teachers with their students.

Many places have no known Tlingit names, either because they were not recorded, or in a few cases such as Mendenhall River, because the feature did not yet exist when Tlingit was the prevailing language. Comparison of place-name density between Áak’w-&-T’aakú country with most of the other chapters (i.e. kwáan territories) in Thornton & Martin (2012), suggests there was once an order of magnitude more Tlingit place names in the Juneau region than the 150 listed on pages 73-77. In better-documented landscapes such as Herman Kitka’s L’ugunax, coho clan community (Deep Bay, Peril Strait), every undulation of the shoreline had a name and associated story.

Working on the Áak’w and T’aakú Talking map with Fred White at Goldbelt Heritage, and speaking with elders about Juneau geography, I’ve become aware how complex and ambiguous the names can be. Each fluent speaker raises new questions, bringing different skills to bear on fascinating semantic problems or clan histories. Did the transcriber spell this as the ancestor intended? A single changed letter or diacritical mark results in surprisingly different interpretations. And who gave us the names in the first place?

The conservative response to ambiguity is to do nothing with these names, hoping for more authoritative documentation and consensus. Although I look forward to further research, interviews, and discussion between cultural, biological and geographical specialists, there will never be a time when all agree on a perfect Tlingit atlas for Áak’w and T’aakú country.

For me, that waiting ended with publication of Haa L’éelk’w Hás Aani Saax’ú. It’s time to use the names, however speculative. In some ways I even relish the teasing mysteries in these names. They remind me that in science we never arrive at final ‘truth.’ The path of a naturalist—and I think also of the 21st-century culture-bearer—is to embrace uncertainty. That does not equate with complacency; we never stop learning—dispassionately rejecting mistaken hypotheses and dispersing ignorance. Nor would a principled educator ever campaign to entrench a dogma.

Here’s an example of an ambiguity that might frustrate some while enchanting others. I count myself in both groups, but identify more strongly with the enchanted:

Eix’gul’héen, creek at the end of the slough (Switzer Creek). That’s the translation in Thornton & Martin (2012). However, Marie Olson (Wooshkeetaan) and Liana Wallace (L’eeneidí) have heard the meaning expressed as closer to “warm springs creek.” While no thermal springs are known in this watershed, Bob Armstrong—a fish biologist who has studied Juneau streams since the 1960s—says the outstanding quality of this creek is relatively warmer upwellings into the lower reaches from deep alluvium, charged winter-long by the large fan of crushed, limey slate chips just upslope. This prevents the stream from freezing bottomfast, as happens in cold spells to most other creeks of this size. Eix’gul’héen is better for wintering fish.

L’eeneidí residents of Eix’gul’héen were probably attentive to such subtleties of aquatic habitat. The lives of salmon and their anadromous relatives anchored the Tlingit universe. Paddling down what was soon afterward named Gastineau Channel in 1879, John Muir purchased 5 Dolly Varden char from an unspecified encampment that could well have been Eix’gul’héen:

“a lot of bright fresh trout, lovely creatures about 15 inches long, their sides adorned with vivid red spots.”

What could those fishermen have told Muir about the life cycle of every salmonid or cottid species in every local stream? That question does frustrate me, because respectful or even curious visitors could have done so much more to record the wisdom of watershed people. But at least we preserved this name, Eix’gul’héen, one more murky-but-alluring window onto the framing question of our 2013 course, and increasingly, of my life’s work as a Southeast naturalist: Why do we live here?

US Board on Geographic Names

At the November 2013 Clan Conference, I listened in fascination to the talk by Bob Francis, Regional Cartographer for the US Forest Service. Bob proudly described his role in getting several Tlingit place names ‘on the map.’ and also in opposing further proliferation of inappropriate IWGNs. While these examples were inspiring, I was sobered to learn how difficult it is to change an IWGN, once it’s been anointed by the federal agency that oversees the names on maps.

President Harrison established the US Board on Geographic Names (BGN) in 1890, deemed necessary because place-name conflicts were

“a serious detriment to the orderly process of exploring and settling this country.”

That pioneering attitude boded ill for survival of disenfranchised names. Another let-down for me was scanning the list of dignitaries appointed by Harrison to the original place-names board. First was:

“Prof. Thomas C. Mendenhall. United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, Chairman.”

Hmmmm. So much for bumping Mendenhall and restoring the Tlingit name of our backyard glacier! But my more general question after listening to Bob Francis’ presentation was whether current federal board members have more enlightened naming policies. The answer is yes, and no.

To my surprise, the lead author of the Board’s 1997 guidelines document— Principles, policies and procedures; Domestic geographic names—was none other than Donald Orth, compiler 30 years earlier of the Dictionary of Alaska place names—basically the BGN’s official renunciation of Tlingit geography. In the opening pages of the new Orth policy paper (1997) we read that:

“Names of Native American origin are found sprinkled generously across the face of the land.”

A disappointingly low-bar definition of generosity. And the BGNs dream map?

“It would be ideal if in everyday language all people were to use but one name for a given geographic entity with only one entity known by that name.”

In the founding years of the Board on Names, such assimilatory aspirations extended far beyond geography, including, for example, the banning of spoken Tlingit in BIA schools. Even today, perusing guidelines for naming in Orth’s 1997 policy document, I find little tolerance for multiplicity of place names.

That said, restoration of Tlingit place names has influential supporters within federal and state agencies. I was encouraged by a recent phone conversation with Bob Francis at USFS, who would gladly advise and collaborate with groups like Tlingit-Haida, Douglas Indian, Sealaska and Goldbelt Heritage. We needn’t be intimidated by the quotes above, nor by rigid or archaic federal policies. We only need to learn where opportunities beckon, and alternatively, in which bureaucratic arenas we’d be wasting our time. Here are some conclusions based upon a reading of Orth (1997) and conversation with Bob Francis:

• What I call IWGNs (important white guy names) are referred to by the US Board on Geographic Names as “commemorative names.” Comprising less than 1% of Tlingit place names, commemorative names dominate US maps and the BGN database. Over time, however, distaste for new commemorative names has grown.

“Experience shows that local citizens and other name users often resent and even resist using names that commemorate people.”

The nomination process is laborious, and if an element of the population opposes a proposed commemorative name, it’s apt to be denied by the BGN. While such conflict is a weak strategy for restoring Tlingit place-name equity, it does stimulate public discussion about the merit or chauvinism of commemorative place names on a landscape where they were essentially absent before 1790.

● Trying to change an existing commemorative name—however objectionable—is probably futile. While Orth (1997) does have guidelines for removal of so-called “derogatory names,” these are rarely invoked. Even place names including the word “squaw” are hard to delete from federally-sanctioned maps, in part because the term isn’t universally considered demeaning by every Native culture.

IWGNs are even more bomb-proof. There’s no federal process for retroactively adjudicating worthiness of important white guys, once they’ve been commemorated. We could argue endlessly over who was the most arrogant scumball. In early days of exploration and settlement, Southeast Alaska was a pretty mean-karma place. Off-hand, I can’t think of anyone from that period worth celebrating. An official despicability ranking might theoretically enable the purging of names like Meade (or his gunship,Saginaw) from our maps. But most would probably agree there are more efficient, more probable, and more inspiring ways to restore Tlingit names than antagonistic, top-down restructuring of BGN protocol through some miraculous act of Congress.

● Assuming we can’t replace existing unfortunate place names—and recognizing that opposing further IWGNs is a necessary but odious and suboptimal tool—this leaves 2 avenues open to proponents of Tlingit place-name restoration:

1) Push for establishment of Tlingit names for geographic features not currently designated on federally-sanctioned maps.

2) Push for inclusion of Tlingit names as “variants,” to be printed on maps alongside the sanctioned name in parentheses. While this might initially seem a poor consolation prize (Tlingit name as ‘also-ran’), it could ultimately represent a strategic foot-in-the-door.

On a map or chart, a name in parentheses may appear either following the official name or below it. . . The Board does not object to the listing of such variant names in a tabular or dictionary format in order to convey special information such as pronunciation, name origin, or word meaning. A statement explaining the purpose of the table or dictionary and why the names listed vary from official names should be included.” [RC bolds]

The ‘variant’ approach could gracefully (non-confrontationally) introduce a fundamentally new philosophy of naming within a federal agency that currently favors “one place—one name” monolinguism. The timing may be ripe for this acknowledgement of ethnic diversity. What if a coalition of Southeast tribal groups proposed to the Forest Service that a handful of well-vetted Tlingit names be published as variants on their next map? The above guidelines from Orth (1997) would suggest a table giving translation, source (Thornton & Martin eds 2012; and, if known, the elders who gave them the name), and ideally, a website address for audio files of fluent speakers pronouncing each name. Think how fun it would be to compose, per BGN’s request, a polite haiku capping the table, explaining “why the names listed vary.”

National leadership of the BGN is supportive of recent collaborations between USFS cartographic staff and tribal entities in Southeast Alaska. At many levels, the tide is turning on the ways we name our home.

Our grandparents’ names on the land

Haa L’éelk’w Hás Aani Saax’ú: Our grandparents’ names on the land.

Thornton & Martin eds. 2012. Sealaska Heritage Institute; University of Washington Press.

2012 cultural atlas for Southeast Alaska

2012 cultural atlas for Southeast Alaska


Following is adapted from a sidebar in The Nature of Southeast Alaska titled Natural history of names:

Tlingit place-names are poetic tributes to this bountiful archipelago. The 2012 Tlingit place-names atlas, Haa Léelk’w Hás Aaní Saax’ú: Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land, represents decades of collaboration with fluent Tlingit speakers, preserving names of bays, streams, reefs, mountains, and villages. Orchestrated, researched, and compiled by Oxford anthropologist Tom Thornton, and Harold Martin, Haa Léelk’w Hás Aaní Saax’ú is a wonderful resource for Southeast naturalists seeking stories of their favorite lands and waters.

Unfortunately, all maps before Our Grandparents’ Names are dominated by Important White Guy Names (IWGNs). Places named by explorers typically honored dignitaries back home, and tell us more about faraway politics than about the land we inhabit. IWGNs designating who once scratched who’s back actually disconnect us from places. IWGNs cover stories of home like tasteless paint on fine hardwood: Prince of Wales Island, Shelikof Bay, Bucareli Bay.

Other Euro-names are worse than tasteless. Favorite and Saginaw Bays were named for steamships that destroyed Xootsnoowú and Kéex’ Kwáan villages. These insults top the list of names we now can restore to Tlingit: Wankageey, bay on the edge; and Skanáx Aaní, noisy beach country, respectively. Native Alaskans almost never named places for people. The place-grounded Tlingit language can tell a story in 5 syllables: Sít’ Eetí Geeyí means bay taking the place of a glacier. Other names reference Raven tales, fishing attributes, historic battles, shamanic deeds, or tidal patterns.

To know Southeast Alaska is to know her real names. Thanks to the generosity of the elders and Tom Thornton’s monumental archiving effort we’ve shared some of them with you in this book. Our convention in most cases is to give the Tlingit name first, followed by its translation in italics, and the English, Russian, or Spanish IWGN in parentheses. For example: Kadigooni X’áat’,island with spring water (Spuhn Island). To Tom and Harold and the hundreds of contributing culture bearers: Gunalchéesh!


Why do we live here?

Factors in village site selection

People on the land, yesterday, today and tomorrow.

In early 2013, Goldbelt Heritage Foundation (GHF), asked if I (RC) was interested in a class on Investigating Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) for Juneau high school students. I fondly remembered the GHF summer academy in 2010, and our course manual What would Raven see? . One of our longer-term goals in 2010 had been to extend those learning opportunities—piloted in summer immersion courses—to the rest of the school year. Now, with support from UAS School of Education, these objectives were in sight.

Especially exciting was the essential question for this course—“Why do we live here?” This theme was selected by Dionne Cadiente-Laiti (GHF), Barbara Cadiente-Nelson (JSD), and Kate Jensen, Education & Curriculum Specialist (9-12) for GHF, who taught and coordinated the course. Their idea was to investigate—with guidance from elders, culture-bearers, scientists and naturalists—the potential factors for choosing winter village sites and summer resource camps.

I’ve explored the Southeast woods and waters for almost 40 years. Goldbelt Heritage’s essential question has become, increasingly, a personal quest for me. How did people use this country? How has that use evolved (or devolved) over time? What do the ancestors—and their light-footed traces on raised beaches, salt lagoons, and pitch trees—teach us about sustainable lifeways?

Still more ‘essential’ are questions about the future. If they could speak, what story and practice would those ancestors prescribe, for the challenging centuries to come?

Kate Jensen’s curriculum for the course Why do we live here? can be downloaded from the GHF website. I also created a course manual that includes a journal-style retrospective, as well as a more systematic exploration of factors in village site selection. This manual, and 4 narrated slideshows I created to explore the question Why do we live here are too large for easy download but can be obtained from Goldbelt Heritage on a flash drive with course materials.

[1867-2017] 150 Years of Change


1867_2017 from Richard Carstensen on Vimeo.

Download Here (20MB): PDF_Download

Presentation for the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, in the sesquicentennial year of Seward’s purchase. Visualizations of 3 iconic Juneau landscapes as they appeared in 1867, and today (2017). For more background, download the pdf 1867-2017.