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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