‘We want Indigenous people to look at Anchorage as their place’: First markers in Dena’ina place name project go up

Members of the Ida’ina K’eljeshna or Friendship Dancers group perform at a dedication ceremony for the new Dena’ina place names project in Anchorage on Aug. 3, 2021. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

New signs recognizing the Dena’ina place names for locations around Anchorage are going up across the city as part of a project to recognize the area’s first people.

“We want Indigenous people to look at Anchorage as their place because it always has been,” said Melissa Shaginoff, an Ahtna artist from the Chickaloon Tribe who designed the iron artwork that adorns the signs. 

Project organizers hope to install about 30 signs around town. 

Artist Melissa Shaginoff laughs during a dedication event for a Dena’ina place names project on Aug. 3, 2021. Shaginoff designed the iron adornment to the signs, which represents a Dena’ina fire bag. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

“Some in highly visible locations, places people frequent like a Westchester Lagoon or Nuch’ishtunt, or Point Woronzof, some of them maybe not so frequented, but are still important locations for Dena’ina people,” said Aaron Leggett, president of the Native Village of Eklutna and a longtime advocate for incorporating Dena’ina place names.

Leggett joined dozens members of the public, the mayor, Alaska Native artists, and nonprofit leaders at Westchester Lagoon Tuesday evening for the dedication of one of the first markers to go up. 

The recently-installed monument at West Chester is marked with the word Chanshtnu (pronounced CHANCH-noo), which means “Grass Creek” in Dena’ina. The English name “Chester Creek” is a corruption of the Dena’ina word, according to Leggett. A second sign is located at Chanshtnu Muldoon Park in East Anchorage

Aaron Leggett, President of the Eklutna Tribe and curator at the Anchorage Museum, speaks at a dedication for a Dena’ina place names sign at West Chester Lagoon on Aug. 4, 2021. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Leggett said the sign and sculpture at Westchester is the second one installed as part of a larger project to install 30 around Anchorage. 

The two sculptures in Anchorage have a swooping iron design placed at the top of a wooden post. The sculpture represents a fire bag, a leather pouch with materials Dena’ina people carried with them to start fires. Melissa Shaginoff, the artist who designed the sculpture, says there were several reasons she chose a fire bag. 

Members of the Ida’ina K’eljeshna or Friendship Dancers group perform at a dedication ceremony for the new Dena’ina place names project in Anchorage on Aug. 3, 2021. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

“The reason we chose this was not only because of its, like, utilitarian sort of purposes of holding chert and firestarter, but also its representation of leadership,” she said. “On the fire bag, you see dentalium. Dentalium is a really important symbol and material to Dene people. It represents leadership.”

She said leadership in Dena’ina culture is based on a person’s ability to care for a lot of people, unlike in Western culture where it is often linked to wealth. 

Mayor Dave Bronson said at the event that the place names project is also good for Anchorage’s economy.

Steven Holley with Ida’ina K’eljeshna Friendship Dancers performs at an Aug. 4, 2021 dedication for a new Dena’ina place names project. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

“What seems to be good for the Dena’ina people is also good for our business and that’s called tourism,” he said. “And that’s good for all of us because that’s what kind of keeps the machine going here.”

The dedication concluded with Dena’ina dancing and a meal of fish head soup. 

George Holly drums and sings at a dedication ceremony for the new Dena’ina place names project in Anchorage on Aug. 3, 2021. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)
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