Indigenous Place Names Project

The Beginning of a Movement

For more than a decade, Native Village of Eklutna Chair and CEO/Dena’ina scholar/ Anchorage Museum Curator Aaron Leggett has been working to weave Dena’ina language into the fabric of Anchorage. He reached out to Anchorage Park Foundation to introduce placenames to parks and trails, and in 2018 the Rasmuson Foundation donated a gift to get the project started.

The first signs have been installed at Chanshtnu Muldoon Park and Westchester Lagoon. The sign features artwork by Athabascan & Paiute artist Melissa Shaginoff. Her metal sculpture encircling the post is inspired by the dentalium bead pattern and the Dena’ina fire bag. Fire bags were used by the Dena’ina people to store and transport fire-making materials like tinder and embers; the bag represents living with the land. The “Chanshtnu” sign shares the Dena’ina place name for Chester Creek. “Chanshtnu” means “Grass Creek.” The sign also features Dena’ina phrases  – “You are walking on Dena’ina land” and that we are all “Living with the outdoors.” Phrases were supplied by Athabascan artist and linguist Joel Isaak.

Soon after the project began, it became clear that parks and trails signage is a contributor and catalyst to a larger movement of Indigenous Place Naming. Being a part of Anchorage’s Indigenous Place Naming Movement means that you invest in changing the paradigm. Signage is one physical representation of this shift , but there is also a shift in processes, recording, mapping, experiencing, and celebrating.

From this project, we’ve learned that to change the paradigm and create a city that honors the Indigenous Place, there must be three components: 1. The leadership of a local culture bearer; 2. Advisory oversight from a broad base of stakeholders; and 3. Involvement of an Indigenous artist if it is appropriate to the project. It is the combination of these three elements that allow a project to become part of a Movement and live beyond initial contributors to the next generation of our community.

Opening Ceremony

More than 150 community members attended the opening ceremony of the Indigenous Place Making project at Westchester Lagoon on August 3, 2021. The celebration was led by Aaron Leggett, President and Chair of the Native Village of Eklutna, and showcased the Dena’ina artistic place making at one of Anchorage’s most beautiful public parks. The ceremony featured performances by Dena’ina artists and speakers included Eklutna President Aaron Leggett, Mayor Bronson, Rasmuson Foundation President Diane Kaplan, and artist Melissa Shaginoff.

Anchorage Daily News: Ceremony Recognizes Dena’ina Place Names Along Anchorage Trails
Alaska Public Media: First Markers in Dena’ina Place Name Project Go Up
Washington Post: ‘We Are Still Here’ Native Americans dispel myths by living their truth

How to Get Involved

The Anchorage Park Foundation is looking for organizations and individuals who want to support both the larger movement and this specific signage project through sponsorship. Sponsoring this movement will help support the implementation of Level 1 and 2 signs as well as other projects within the program. Learn more about this movement and how you can help. Contact Beth@anchorageparkfoundation.org to become part of the movement.

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