On Tuesday night the Juneau School District Board of Education voted unanimously to accept the gift of a Tlingit name for Juneau-Douglas High School. As with other schools in the district, the Tlingit name of Yadaa.at Kalé will be an addition, not a replacement.
The oldest high school in Alaska’s capital sits at the base of a mountain. That mountain shares its name with the city, and with the school: Juneau.
But it has other names.
“Yadaa.at Kalé is an ancient name. So it’s not as if Mt. Juneau was always called Mt. Juneau,” said Barbara Cadiente-Nelson, Indian Studies Program director for the Juneau School District. She believes names have power. They connect people and places.
For more than a year, a group of people has worked to connect Yadaa.at Kalé to another place: Juneau-Douglas High School.
The push was led by students, including senior Arias Hoyle.
“Even though it’s the name of Mt. Juneau, it does not mean Mt. Juneau. It means ‘beautifully adorned face,’” Hoyle said.
Hoyle said student support for the Tlingit name was widespread at his school. To prove it, he collected signatures from around 70 students of diverse backgrounds.
Elders and leaders representing the Áak’w Ḵwaan and T’aaḵu Ḵwáan approved the choice of Yadaa.at Kalé. They offered the name as a gift to the high school, after meeting with students and district staff last April.
Tlingit elder David Katzeek was one of the leaders at that meeting. He graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School in 1962.
Katzeek said Yadaa.at Kalé is open to interpretation. One of the things it means is “coming home.”
He explained it like this: Imagine you’re on your way back from a long trip hunting or fishing. Stormy waters. You’re in a small canoe. Waves are crashing.
“Sometimes the people in the boat would feel like maybe we’re not going to make it,” Katzeek said. “And they’d be working together, woosh.ji.een.”
Katzeek then demonstrated how the boat’s passengers would express themselves in Tlingit when the mountain comes into view.
“We see that beautiful face of the mountain … That mountain is just getting more beautiful all the time,” Katzeek said.
Juneau-Douglas principal Paula Casperson welcomes the name.
“It’s hard for me to see a downside. I think that this just adds on to what I view as a strength of the Juneau School District, which is incorporating where we live and the people and the place that we are,” Casperson said.
Cadiente-Nelson said using Tlingit names can be a step toward healing from a painful history. One that has been marked by violent suppression of the Native community.
The name, though, is for everyone.
“The restoration and bringing it back to life, though it’s always been there. It’s meaningful to not just the Native people of this region, but I believe to the majority of this community,” Carperson said.
At their January meeting, the Juneau School Board voted to make Yadaa.at Kalé an official part of Juneau-Douglas High School’s name.
It won’t happen overnight. Some things, like a new sign out front, will take time and, more importantly, money.
But Casperson said the school’s website will be updated quickly. She hopes it will include a pronunciation guide, with audio. Getting the new name on anything printed, like student IDs, will be as simple as changing the template.
Hoyle was at the school board meeting when the name was accepted. The vote was unanimous and earned a standing ovation from an unusually large audience. The board members joined in.
After the vote, Hoyle said he felt confident. The change, he said, would be empowering.
Hoyle plans to graduate in May. When he does, he hopes his diploma will name him a graduate of Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé.