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Students Have Racist Place Names Removed From Map

Students Have Racist Place Names Removed From Map

Thanks to the sharp eyes of students in Fairbanks, Alaska, racist place names have been removed from a US Geological Survey topological map. Instead, the map now contains their age old Athabascan names.

Back in August of 2010, eight-graders at Randy Smith Middle School discovered a number of derogatory place names on a map in their classroom and alerted teacher Jayne Naze to them, notes Education Week:

…student Trent Johns noticed the derogatory place name, “Negrohead Creek,” near Minto, on a U.S. Geological Survey topographic map.

“That’s racist,” he said aloud, garnering the attention of his classmates.

“I first thought he (Trent) was kidding, and I went over to see if it actually was true,” Tayllor Geil said.

Hannah Henry, also recalled the day. “Everyone ran over to look at it and decided that it was pretty racist and wanted to change it,” she said.

Naze and Tonya Brown, a Black-Native teacher, both decided to find out how they could have the offensive place names removed and changed. The process took almost two years and involved consultations with Robert Charlie, an Athabascan from Minto, who had long worked on a mapping project to correctly identify Athabascan place names, and James Kari, a University of Alaska Fairbanks professor emeritus of linguistics. Indeed, both Charlie and Kari visited the students and explained the significance of the Athabascan names to them.

A place called “Negrohead Creek” in Minto Flats had originally been Lochenyatth Creek, meaning “grassy tussocks” in the lower Tanana Athabascan language. “Negrohead Mountain,” northeast of the village of Chalkyitsik, had originally been called Tl’oo Khanishyah Mountain, translating to “grassy tussocks” in the Gwich’in Athabascan language.

Once the Athabascan names were determined, teachers Naze and Brown submitted them to the Alaska Historical Commission for approval, after which they were sent to the US Board on Geographic Names for consideration. They also sent the name changes to tribal governments in the Interior. The US Board on Geographic Names said the changed names will now appear in state and federal maps and in the Geographic Names Information System database.

Kari noted the students’ enthusiasm to learn about the Athabascan names. These had never been written down but had been ”memorized, and shared and remain remarkably consistent across language and dialect, with maybe slight changes in pronunciation.” Thus, restoring the Athabascan place names has also brought back a lost heritage and history.

The students who noted the racist place names will now be entering tenth grade. Hannah Henry says it’s “cool” to know that their efforts have led to real change: The students and teachers have indeed put themselves on the map.

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53 comments

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11:51PM PDT on Jun 11, 2012

Negrohead is no more racist than Whitehead, one of my family names.

11:50PM PDT on Jun 11, 2012

Negrohead is no more racist than Whitehead, one of my family names.

11:50PM PDT on Jun 11, 2012

Negrohead is no more racist than Whitehead, one of my family names.

11:49PM PDT on Jun 11, 2012

What is racist about Negrohead? One of my family names is Whitehead. Is that now racist, too?

12:30PM PDT on Jun 10, 2012

way to go! that is awesome and wonderful!

4:24AM PDT on Jun 10, 2012

Good!!!

10:50PM PDT on Jun 9, 2012

Good on them, maybe there is hope for our generation.

9:35PM PDT on Jun 9, 2012

Can someone please explain why the name is necessaly racist or derogatory. There are some places named Whitehead.

8:26PM PDT on Jun 8, 2012

How wonderful they are learning about bullying and how it hurts.

10:04AM PDT on Jun 8, 2012

PERSONALLY I AM SO SICK AND TIRED OF ALL THE CATEGORIES OF OUR LIFE BEING LABELED RACIST THIS AND THAT.

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Kristina Chew Kristina Chew teaches ancient Greek, Latin and Classics at Saint Peter's University in New Jersey.... more
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