New Book Highlights Relationship between Place and Alaska Native Languages

Earlier this month, Sea Alaska Heritage published a book that was 20 years in the making—and according to reviewers, it was worth the wait. Haa Léelk’w Hás Aaní Saax’ú: Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land is a compilation of nearly 3,500 names of places in Southeast Alaska in Tlingit, Haida, Eyak, Askabascan, and other Alaska Native languages. Compiled by Dr. Thomas Thornton with the help of hundreds of elders and other knowledgeable members of local tribes, the book provides the Native names of local places, their English translations, and other information of note.

A press release from Alaska Heritage’s highlights on of the book’s anecdotes:

One story… tells of a great flood that forced people into the Interior. They migrated back several generations later after the water receded and even though many of the travelers had never seen their homeland, they were able to recognize places by the picturesque Tlingit names that had been passed down.

I thought this was especially interesting given that I’ve heard similar experiences described by people of other indigenous cultures. For example, descendants of the Cherokee who were driven away from their home lands during the Trail of Tears have described the haunting sensation of visiting their ancestral homelands for the first time and recognizing key locations purely on the basis of the stories and names handed down to them through the generations.

Indeed, one of the themes drawn out by the book is that Native names are often much more descriptive than their English counterparts. While English-speakers tend to name places after historical figures or other places (like Jonestown or New York), Native names generally provide information about the location itself. For example, Dzantik’i Héeni, which means “Flounder at the Base of the Creek” in Tlingit, describes an important source of subsistence living. You may be familiar with Dzantik’i Héeni by its English name, Juneau, the namesake of  Joe Juneau, who’s discovery of gold in the area in the late 1800′s lead to a major gold rush.

Xh’unei, Lance A. Twitchell, Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages at the University of Alaska Southeast, echoes the point that place and language are inextricably intertwined, writing, “our languages have developed in specific places for thousands and thousands of years. Within them we see patterns of migrations, grammar that allows us to see the world differently, and an ability to communicate more closely with our ancestors and the natural world around us.” Referring to the names in to book Twitchell writes, “When you think about it, and when you really try to use these names, you then realize that you are not just living in Anywhere, USA.”

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