Why Are Place Names Important?
Place names are anchors of Tlingit language on the land. They are important markers of Taku River Tlingit territory, as well as markers of where our ancestors use to travel. Place names are resilient because the names are remembered even as the Tlingit language is no longer our language of daily communication. Place names then, with all of the ecological knowledge and stories associated with them, are one of the best ways to begin to re-learn the Tlingit language.
As the video, Taku: a vision of wilderness, states:
Age-old Tlingit place names, as poetic as they are practical, carry valuable ecological and survival information. Place names represent locations where fish spawn, where moose come to drink, where edible fern roots could be found. Hundreds of names within this area form an indispensable survival map, a legacy passed down through generations of Tlingit. (Taku, a vision of wilderness, 1997)
Many Taku River Tlingit community members have also commented on why Tlingit place names are important to them.
Names teach you how to respect the land:
You know, my mother when she was alive, she stressed to us boys as we were growing up and throughout the years as we sat and had her tell us stories about our history, she was always of the opinion that the names that our people gave certain places, they gave that name because it had a meaning and that meaning we had to take to heart. And we had to make it a living mandate for us to follow, the markers and what not.
When she was alive I used to drive her in to from Atlin to Whitehorse all the time. Along they way she’d point out the mountains to me and the names that they had and she’d start telling me the story behind that. And it wasn’t until quite a number of times that I started getting the meaning of it and as I started to understand the meaning behind the name, I started really realizing the significance of why we should keep that mountain as a reminder of who we are and what we are suppose to be doing. It’s really important.
This area with our names on the mountains and our names on the creeks and the rivers, and the lakes, and everything, even on the hills, told a story of the Tlingit use of the land, the Tlingit respect for the land and everything, you know. That’s what I mean, at the end of the story anybody reading it should be able to read it and say, them Tlingits really did respect the land and they really did their best.
You know, Atlin Mountain, if you ask any child in our reserve, you know what mountain is that? They would say Atlin. They wouldn't say Áa Tlein, which is Big Water. You know. and K'iyán, you know, down there, and the stories around it. You know, kids are interested and I know that because when I was a kid I used to sit down for hours and listen to elders talk about medicines and the stories that applied to the land and how we respected the land and they used to tell scary stories and I used to think, how come the lake’s scaring us, us kids? But it, the point was that if they told those stories that the children, as they grew up, would respect the land more…. So I think the name places would be an awesome thing. And it would, it would give the land back its spirit.
I think that's a very good thing to do but I think what we have to do is do phases. I think right now this is the first phase and I think that if we go by those list of names that the elders did before to name our streets and that, it will get us in a good rhythm to move forward. So we're going to like, I don't want to say we're going to put place names on a map and then that's it it's finished. It's the beginning. I think that if we get those place names that the elders put, that the elders picked out to name our streets and that, those were obviously the most important places. So if we start with that, we start out with elders, the elders already blessed that and then there’s, there’s a common rhythm and there’s a really good rhythm with the land. So, you know, I think that those place names for sure has to be the first step to go on the maps.
One of my things is around being responsible for the land and I think one of the ways to encourage responsibility is for people to remember their history and promises ancestors made, you know, for looking after places and staying connected to places.
When I see these places here [on the map] in Tlingit it makes me want to learn about that place and also it gives me a sense of being a part of the land.
Names give you pride:
I think today, more than ever, if the younger generations could start understanding that then they could start their journey back to their roots and find out who they really are. And once they find out who they really are that’s when the pride is going to come back and they are going to walk around the streets with their heads held high and they’ll be able to tell anyone, who they are and where they are from. That’s really important.
I was raised in Vancouver mostly and then I came back and the elders were not around. So that’s why, that’s part of why I think it’s such an important thing to, to start bringing back the names and the, a lot of the culture that, that’s been lost and and it’s ah it’s a pretty important thing that we start to do. You know and, and I’m constantly I drive around and I see all, all these lakes and mountains with names that don’t mean anything to me - Monroe Mountain. You know and uh, Minto Mountain I don’t know what that, you know like. I don’t know these mountains or who uh, you know who these people are.
I would love for this generation and future generations of young people to be raised to know those names and to not have to be convinced that it’s not a fairy tale, you know, what we tell them about who they are and what their responsibilities are.
You know, even my own Tlingit name, I’ve known my own Tlingit name for a long time and when my daughter’s headstone potlatch happens this fall it’s the first time it’ll be called at potlatch and so it will be legal then. And that means so much to me, so and that’s kind of how I feel about it going on the maps, it’s like you know at potlatch they rub that money on your face. They call it “putting your name on your face” and everybody says the name and says the name and says the name and then that’s your name and it’s legal. And so that’s what I would compare, you know, the mapping of the names too, it’s like putting it on the face of the mountains and on the surface of the lakes and on the land’s face.
It’s probably a really important part of our healing, you know, like who we are, that we would learn to talk to our land and call it the right things.
Names tell you about the land:
See um, where the white man come and make, make, make us start that uh, to call the native people the “wild Indians” – they didn’t know nothing. It’s not that way. All these names on there. And they’re connected to Mother earth’s way of doing things you now, and it’s connected into how the land looks and everything.
A lot of the Tlingit names that were that way because of the, the use of that land. You know the, the mountain would have a name that would be specific to the use of that mountain or the area of that mountain and you know like uh, Teresa Island. I don’t know who Teresa is but you know it used to be Goat Island right, that gives you a better idea of what’s on that island.
Why they gave the names to these various places and you know, [it was because of] what was there, you know like yourself, if you name something in a particular area, it’s for a reason and we were no different.
Names let you leave your mark:
Place names let you leave your mark instead of the English names, and could be used in the BC land use plan. In terms of Aboriginal Title, place names prove that we were there, and they are a part of our history.
I really think that it’s important that we re-establish our jurisdiction in whatever ways we can.
I think this particular project is a pretty important step here, and again just telling the world that, you know, this is our land and we have our names on it and this is what the names mean.