About the Project
The Alaska Native Place Names Project addresses the need for an authoritative, statewide resource documenting traditional knowledge of Indigenous place names across all of Alaska’s Native languages.
While there is a long history of place name research in Alaska (see the History page), the resulting documentation is often inaccessible and in danger of being lost. Cultural sensitivities sometimes prevent broader sharing of place name documentation, and lack of secure data storage technologies prevent adequate archiving. Lack of coordination also results in duplication of effort. For example, at least four major place name documentation projects have been conducted independently in the Minto Flats region in the past few decades.
If you are interested in partnering with the Alaska Native Place Names project please contact us: info [at] akplacenames.org.
Native names as compared to English names
Alaska is one of the most linguistically complex places on earth, a literal cross-roads of continents through which the New World was settled. Today Alaska is home to at least twenty distinct languages representing two major linguistic families: Eskimo-Aleut and Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit. Recent work reveals potential genealogical relationships to languages even further afield in central Siberia. Place names reveal the nature of human relationship to the land. A quick look at a gazetteer of English-language place names in Alaska reveals much about how early migrants to Alaska viewed to the land. Names such as ‘Gold Creek’ (23 instances in Alaska) and ‘Mineral Creek’ (5 instances) reveal a focus on mineral extraction. Names such as ‘Mt. McKinley’ and ‘Fairbanks’ reveal a clear connections to paymasters in the migrants’ homelands. In principle, Native names are no different, in that they also reveal relationships between humans and the landscape. However, Native names reveal a relationship borne of thousands of years of human occupation of the land. This time depth allows us to draw inferences about how that relationship has changed over time. Moreover, Athabaskan names are driven by what Levinson (2008) has called human affordances, that is, by what they are good for in human activities and purposes.
Prosaic examples of Alaska Native place names abound, such as the oft-cited Koyukon Athabaskan name Deenaalee for ‘Mt. McKinley’, meaning literally ‘the high one’ or ‘one which is high’ (or the less well-known Lower Tanana name Dinadhi or Dinadhedi). But a closer investigation of place name inventories reveals more subtle information about the land. Consider the following example of Chatanika, a well-known water body located near Fairbanks.
The English name Chatanika derives from the Lower Tanana Athabaskan name Dradlaya Nik’a, literally ‘whitefish (Prosopium cylindraceum) river’. The place where the river emerges from the valley is Dradlaya Chaget, literally ‘whitefish mouth’, following a standard Athabaskan generative naming pattern whereby a single specific term (in this case dradlaya) is combined with a generic geographic terms (in this case chaget). Viewed from the perspective of English physiography, it is possible to trace the course of the Chatanika River as it meanders across the vast Minto Flats (referred to in Lower Tanana as Men Ti ‘among the lakes’), nearly merging with Washington Creek, until it finally meets the Tolovana River, a larger stream which flows across the western side of the Minto Flats. Indeed, the official English name assigned to the river extends along this route.
But from the point of view of Lower Tanana Athabaskan the Chatanika River ends at Dradlaya Chaget. Beyond that point the river is no longer identified as an individual stream course but rather by a variety of names referring to interconnected lakes and sloughs. The ‘mouth’ referred to by Dradlaya Chaget is not a standard river mouth in the English sense of the term; however, it is a place of geographic significance. It is the place where the Chatanika River emerges from the hills onto the great wide plain of the Minto Flats. When it finally does straighten out and begin to look like a river again, just prior to joining the Tolovana, it is called not Dradlaya Nik’a but Nonilenh No’, literally ‘current flows across creek’. It is not the same river but a different river. In contrast, the 100 km of river above Dradlaya Chaget is continuously referred to as Dradlaya Nik’a. The valley is the river.
Examples like Chatanika abound, reinforcing the observation that Native place names are not in simple one-to-one correspondence with English place names. Rather, Native place names reveal a unique human conceptualization of the landscape.
The Alaska Place Names Project was initiated in 2011 with support form an integrative faculty research award from the Alaska EPSCoR program. Continued funding provided by the Alaska Native Language Center and the National Science Foundation grants OPP-1415603 and OPP-1624365.
The project is currently administered by the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Department of Linguistics in partnership with the Alaska Native Language Center and the Alaska Native Language Archive.