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.
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!