More than two dozen places in Alaska are named using a racist and sexist word that disparages Indigenous women.
Last spring, months before the federal government began steps to change those names, three elementary students wanted to rename a Dillingham creek that uses that slur, as well as a road that bears the creek’s name.
Now, members of the Curyung Tribal Council in Dillingham are working to gather ideas for new names from the community.
The students — Alora Wassily, Trista Wassily and Harmony Larson — wanted to change the name to Seven Sisters Creek to reflect the community’s connection to sisters who traveled about six miles from Nushagak Point to live along the creek generations ago.
In November, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland moved to ban the slur from the names of places on federal lands. And last month the Interior Department opened a public comment period on name changes for over 660 geographic features across the country.
The federal Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force, unlike the girls, based its suggestions on other geographic locations in the area.
In Alaska, the task force will give priority to tribes’ suggestions for name changes, but those suggestions have to adhere to existing policies — like restrictions on naming things after people.
First Chief JJ Larson said the Curyung Tribal Council took part in a March 22 consultation with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, but the Tribe also requested an independent session with the board, which is scheduled for April 19.
“The three girls that have worked on this for over a year now have done a lot of the groundwork, and really pushed for this to happen,” he said. “We felt that as a tribe, if the federal government was going to come in here and change the name on our tribal lands, that we should be consulted individually.”
In February, the task force released more than 3,300 alternatives for locations across the country. In Dillingham, the names it suggested were Bradford Point, Snag Point, Grassy Island, Sheep Island and Picnic Point.
A creek in the Lake and Peninsula Borough will also receive a new name. Suggested changes for that include Sea Gull Flat, Telephone Point, Svoger Slough, Graveyard Point and Cape Horn.
On April 2, the Curyung Tribe plans to hold a community meeting open to everyone in Dillingham to discuss ideas and gather feedback. The Tribe also invited the U.S. Geological Survey to attend.
Larson said a few names have been brought forward since the students first presented Seven Sisters Creek.
“The girls actually came to our Tribal Council meeting and gave us another name as another option: Al’a’s Creek,” Larson said. “Al’a is big sister, and so it’s a really good name, I think, that that really ties well with our community and our culture.”
Elder Dora Andrew-Ihrke worked with the students on the name change project. She taught for decades at the Dillingham school before she retired. She is from Aleknagik — Alaqnaqiq — which she said means “wrong way” in Yup’ik.
Her aunt told her that the first people who resided in Aleknagik set up a camp at what became the mission school.
“They settled there, and it became a permanent place. And once it becomes a place to live, then you give it a name,” she said. “When people come around, they ask, ‘Who are you guys?’ And they’d say, ‘Igyararmiunguukut.’ We’re people from the throat. Throat of the area, meaning the lake was like the head of a person. And the throat is right between the river, and the river would be like going down into your stomach area, and so forth. So land was sometimes named after the human body. And so Aleknagik, which was Alarneq — somebody went up the wrong river with the kayak, instead of going up the Nushagak River, and settled there. And then the rest of the group, the Natives that first settled there called themselves the Igyararmiut.”
As for renaming the creek in Dillingham, Andrew-Ihrke thinks it should reflect the women who lived there.
“For my Yup’ik culture, I would show respect by just calling it Alqaqellriit Kuigat, the Sisters Creek. Alqaqellritt, Alqaq Al’a is the oldest sister, so Alqaqellriit implies there are more than one sister,” she said. “So it doesn’t say how many, but the Sisters Creek in English would be proper, and to me that’s showing respect on how you name places.”
Efforts to restore Native place names aren’t new. In 2015, then-President Barack Obama used his executive power to rename Mount McKinley as Denali after a more than quarter-century push to do so.
In Bristol Bay, the Bristol Bay Native Corporation has led a place names project for years. Francisca Demoski worked on the project since the early 2000s. She’s from Togiak, where many people call her by her Yup’ik name, Mall’u.
Demoski said the program began with the goal to preserve place names. Early on, they gathered information on names in a database. She then worked with Tim Troll, of the Nature Conservancy, to conduct local interviews.
Demoski said it’s imperative to consult with the Native people of an area when renaming a place.
“For thousands of years, our people have lived on this land, they’ve known this land and they’ve named this land. So the efforts that the Dillingham school kids are doing I think is so important, and so respectful,” she said. “Because you’re learning more today as people are realizing, you know, and they’re reclaiming back to their original name, and realizing how important it is to be using their local names versus somebody who came from outside to give, you know, the place the name.”
Mayor Alice Ruby said the city council has not yet taken a position on renaming the Dillingham road which shares the creek’s name. Part of what makes it complicated, she said, is that it’s always been a private road.
“The council has been very sensitive about first of all, acknowledging private property and private owners and stuff,” Ruby said. “But they’re also pretty sensitive about things that might be offensive to the public. The property owners on the road are going to be pretty key to whether there’s interest in changing the name.”
Curyung First Chief JJ Larson said that through this effort, he’s started to think about the potential for changing the names of other places in the area.
“I think that as the new first chief — I’m pretty new to it — one of the things that I would like to work on is working with the city and seeing if there would be any interest in changing the name of the city to Curyung,” he said.
Larson hasn’t taken any action on that yet. But he pointed to other cities throughout the state that have changed their names, like Utqiaġvik.
“It was Barrow before, but now it’s Utqiaġvik. And just saying that out loud, you have to think about like, ‘Oh, this is Native land.’ Right? And so that’s something to think about,” he said. “And that’s something that I would like to work with the city on.”
The Derogatory Names Task Force’s current effort will change geographic names in the federal registry, but not local or state building, park or road names or those of federal land units, like national parks.
Mike Tischler, with the Derogatory Names Task Force, said that this renaming effort will end with recommendations to the Board on Geographic Names in late summer or early fall. People can submit comments on the process or name suggestions of their own to the Federal Register. The deadline to do so is April 25th.