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.