ection 5 brings together many of the themes and concepts incorporated in the preceding four sections of the atlas. In all seven articles in this section, people use geography to interpret the past, to understand the present, and to plan for the future.
Uses of Geography shows just seven of the many ways modern Alaskans are observing and describing their homeland: in hand-drawn maps sketched during on-the-ground field studies, in colorful thematic maps that illuminate connections between physical features and oral tradition, in complex maps on Geographic Information Systems, and in interactive maps available to the public through the Internet. These articles show just a few examples of how professional geographers, city planners, archaeologists, authors and publishers, toponymists, Native elders, GIS technicians, and Alaska students are contributing to a growing understanding of Alaska's physical and human geography.
People in these articles see Alaska from many perspectives. Some make large-scale maps of stream beds or a single beach, some compare aerial photos to track land use changes over time, some document land uses centuries old, some compile data on resources and how they have been or might be affected by human activities. No less important is the role many people featured here play in making geographic information available to large numbers of citizens and decisionmakers. In a society as populous and technologically advanced as modern Alaska, people want and need accurate information about Alaska's physical geography and the opportunities and considerations related to life in this particular place on earth.
Perhaps the clearest message of all these articles, and of the atlas as a whole, is the inter-connectedness of people and the physical environment in Alaska. People are inevitably influenced by characteristics of climate, terrain, natural resources, and Alaska's spatial characteristics, including its location in the Northern world. The physical environment is to some degree inevitably impacted by all human activities and by population, transportation, communication, economics, and trade. Within this web of space and time, the past influences and informs the present.
From Barrow on the Arctic Coastal Plain to Juneau in the Southeast Panhandle, these articles show modern Alaskans—government employees, scholars, Native elders, naturalists, professional geographers, GIS technicians, townspeople, and students—using geography to improve their lives and surroundings. By applying geography to the past, they help us understand how physical and human factors intersected to make the world as it was and as it is today. By applying geography to the present, they help us understand how our daily lives affect and are influenced by the world around us. Looking to the future, they show us how we can use what we have learned to influence what our lives and the world that surrounds us will be like in generations to come.
Students Hannah Lager and Monika Bethers from Dzantik'i Heeni School sketch onto a map form such features as stream edge, tree trunks, overhead canopy gaps, trails, brush, and fallen logs. Students create maps by stretching a 200-foot tape down the stream. They lay a second 100-foot tape perpendicular to it, extending 50 feet to both sides. Then they gradually move the 100-foot tape downstream in 25-foot steps and complete the rough field draft.
Forest, stream, and wetland studies at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle Schoool
By Richard Carstensen, Naturalist, Discovery Foundation
Photos and maps ©Richard Carstensen and students
In the Tlingit language, Dzantik'i Heeni means "creek of the baby flounders." The beautiful school now known by that name was built in 1992 on ground that biologists described as forested wetland, a fragile habitat. The City of Juneau's building permit requires that students of the school learn about the surrounding wetlands, streams, and forests. The city has contracted with Discovery Foundation, a natural history education group, to work with the school's teachers and students. Gradually students, government researchers, and consultants are creating a detailed description of what we call today the Switzer Creek Watershed.
Dzantik'i Heeni offers extraordinary opportunities in nature study. Ancient old-growth forest is literally only seconds from the school doors. Students can study succession, the change in natural communities over time, by visiting nearby clearcuts of different ages. A large, undeveloped wet meadow to the southeast can be reached quickly by boardwalk, and the salt marshes of the Mendenhall Wetlands Refuge are only 15 minutes away. Black bear, deer, goshawk, and marbled murrelets inhabit the rarely visited forest immediately above the school. Mountain goats gaze down from their cliffs in Switzer's headwaters.
|Aerial photographs are extremely useful to habitat mappers. The Forest Service, city planning departments, and other government agencies are good sources of aerial photos. Agencies may allow schools to make copies from their 9”x9” prints. We like to photograph them as 35mm slides because they can then be projected onto paper and traced at any scale and orientation. To see even more in these photos, we look at pairs of them in 3D using viewers called stereoscopes.|
How do we study all this? We take the first step in most environmental research projects, whether they are aimed at fish habitat, glacial landforms, or effects of human development: We make maps!
|Historical series by Inua Blevens, student
These two maps show the area around Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School in Juneau. They were traced from projected aerial photographs taken in 1929 and 1992. There are many differences between them. The 1968 and 1943 clearcuts don't appear in the earlier map. In 1929, only one dirt road passed through the Lemon Creek Valley.
The major difference between the maps is the disappearance of the floodplain old-growth forests. They are shown only in the 1929 photo because they were sold away after that for lumber. Later the land was used for mobile homes (southwest corner) and housing tracts (southeast corner). Long ago Switzer and Lemon Creeks left deposits of coarse sand and gravel that make will-drained sites for housing."
As part of Water Watch, a nationwide stream study organized and partly funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, we study Switzer Creek, mapping stream sections and taking monthly water quality measurements. The most pristine part of Switzer Creek we named Robin Trib. (See D-12 on the habitat map on the next page.) With our data this tributary can be compared to more heavily impacted sections of Switzer Creek, such as Marriott Pond (shown in the large scale inset map from the habitat map) and the extremely damaged Duck Creek in nearby Mendenhall Valley, which we study with students from Floyd Dryden Middle School.
We hope the examples of our work on these pages give other students some ideas about ways to study natural and human surroundings around their schools.Habitat map. Students can reach any point on this map within a one- or two-hour walk from Dzantik'i Heeni. The coordinate system (letters and numbers at the edgesof the map) provides a handy way of recording the locations of our field observations. For example, the Water Watch study site map is at D-10.
Water Watch study site map. From field draft 5/22/96 by students including Inua Blevins and Hannah Lager
|Forest profiles. To create this profile view of the forest types new Dzantik'i Heeni School, students visited about a dozen sites on the habitat map above. At each stop they recorded the site coordinates, tree height, diameter, spacing, ratio of spruce to hemlock, amount of canopy closure, understory plants, and other notes on wildlife, soils, logging history etc.|
5.2. Oil Spill Mapping Along Alaska's Southcentral Coast
By Greg Chaney, Geomorphologist and City Planner
I said, "Never underestimate the power of maps" to a co-worker who commented on how the result of six months of shoreline surveys, involving hundreds of people, was displayed on a single sheet of paper. It was September of 1989, and I had spent the past six months working as a member of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill response team. We had attempted to recover more than 11 million gallons of Alaska North Slope crude oil spilled into Prince William Sound.
I first learned about the spill from a newspaper article that showed a map of Prince William Sound with an arrow pointing to the leaking tanker Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef. My concern grew as each subsequent newspaper displayed an updated oil spill map showing an expanding ink blot tracing the oil's expansion westward. Soon news reports accompanying these maps were accompanied by photographs of dead and dying wildlife that had been overwhelmed by black crude. Oil spread more than 500 miles across Alaska's southcentral coast, reaching Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula.
At first, efforts to clean up oil from beaches were inefficient, partly because crews did not have accurate maps to guide them to the beaches where the most oil remained. Reality was far more complex than the expanding ink blot of oil reported in the media. Oil floated on the sea in large swirling patterns resembling great octopuses with trailing tentacles.
To make things more complicated, the shoreline consisted of steep glacially carved bays and headlands with pocket beaches strung like beads between them. When random ribbons of oil touched the irregular coast, a wild variety of oil concentrations resulted. In places oil distribution appeared to be the work of a crazed giant who had run along beaches with a broad paintbrush dipped in crude oil. It looked as if he had splattered droplets here, painted a broad band there, and farther down the beach dumped the rest of the bucket in a gooey continuous sheet.
Accurate maps showing where the oil was were needed to direct cleanup crews. First, helicopters flew along shorelines in the spill zone to videotape stranded oil. These video tapes were brought back to an emergency cartography lab in Valdez and combined with eyewitness reports.Crew cleaning an oiled beach
SCAT teams were composed of a geomorphologist to map oil distribution, a biologist who primarily documented intertidal organisms so cleanup workers would not harm them, and an archaeologist to ensure archaeological sites were not accidentally damaged. As the team's "oil geomorphologist" I used the aerial video maps as a general guide and drew sketch maps of specific sites. The hand-drawn sketch maps showed reference landmarks to guide cleanup crews to the oil we found. In addition, oil concentration was classified into categories and entered into computerized shoreline maps. These reports, based on maps, were then used to establish cleanup priorities and recommend appropriate treatment methods. Ultimately the massive response effort was prioritized, directed, and carried out using maps as its primary guidance tools. Without the rapid deployment of multiple mapping teams, the army of cleanup workers and equipment that descended on Alaska's southcentral coast during 1989 would have been blind and directionless.
Debbie Corbett, an archaeologist with the U.S. Fish andWildlife Service, works on Alaska's farthest west Aleutian Islands.
Since 1983, when she worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Corbett has been using geography by mapping pre-European village and house sites in the Aleutians. Corbett says archaeologists look for tools, artifacts, houses, and other remains of early people, but their goal is really to understand the people who left those things behind.
Debbie Corbett, center, and other archaeologists measure a site in the Aleutians
Corbett studies archaeological sites on the Near Islands, islands originally named because they were "near" to Russia. The Near Islands include Attu, Agattu, and the three Semichi Islands of Shemya, Nizki, and Alaid. Corbett says evidence shows the Eastern Aleutians were occupied as far back as 8,000 to 9,000 B.C., but the oldest evidence of early people in the Near Islands dates back 3,500 years ago, to about 1,500 B.C. Archaeologists believe people from the eastern Aleutians gradually worked their way west. They developed settlement patterns different from those of the eastern Aleuts.
"We know people in this area made a living off the ocean," Corbett said, "so we focus our search along the coastline. We also know everyone needs fresh water and a place to physically build a home, so we look for places low and flat with a stream nearby."
Corbett has located 107 sites, and she measured the size of more than 90 of them to create the map shown on this page. By correlating the locations and sizes of the sites with the surrounding landscape, she learned a great deal about the western Aleuts.
Corbett found the largest and most complex settlements were near the greatest variety of resources. They were near reefs, where there were shellfish and inshore fishes. They were near shallow offshore waters, where there were halibut, cod, and rockfish and where harbor seals hauled out on the rocks. They were near but not too close to sea lion rookeries. They were also on the eastern ends of the islands, where people could watch for enemy raiders from islands to the east.
Each island had one or two very large sites. Corbett believes these large settlements were winter villages and that at other seasons of the year people spread out to smaller "home" sites to hunt, fish, and pick berries. The presence of many small "single family" houses in the Near Islands suggests a different social grouping than among the Aleuts on the eastern Aleutians. In the East a single structure might house an entire village of 50 to 100 people.
Corbett is finding other clues about the western Aleuts in the remains at various sites. For example, Near Islands people made tools such as arrow and spear tips and knives from stone. Certain types of stone, however, are found on only one or two islands. Agattu, for example, has a fine-grained sedimentary rock like argillite that makes beautiful tools. Yet tools made from this rock are found on all the Near Islands. That suggests that people visited and traded among the islands.
Other remains tell a great deal about life among Near Islands Aleuts. There are tools made from sea mammal bone: needles, wedges for working wood, harpoon points, handles, and digging sticks. There are remains of grass baskets, matting, and ropes.
Aleuts no longer live on the Near Islands, but Corbett still hopes to learn more about the islands' early inhabitants. "We're trying to understand how people lived in a place that seems tremendously difficult and forbidding to us," she said. "We know they survived and had real comforts. They were happy and healthy. But we still have a lot to learn about their way of life. The whole thing is a mystery, and we're just starting to follow the clues."
One of the best-known and respected sources of information about Alaska geography is housed in a modest, one-story building in Anchorage. Located appropriately on International Airport Road, The Alaska Geographic Society is a crossroads for information about Alaska, much as the nearby airport is the nerve center for people visiting or traveling throughout the state.
The non-profit Alaska Geographic Society was formed in 1968 by Bob Henning, a long-time supporter of geography education in Alaska who was then publisher of Alaska® magazine, The Milepost®, and a series of books on the North. The Society's stated goal has changed little in the 30 years since then. It is "exploring new frontiers of knowledge across the lands of the Polar Rim" and "sharing in the excitement" of what its writers and photographers discover.
In Alaska and elsewhere, the Society is best known for its quarterly publication Alaska Geographic®. Each issue is like a combination diary, photo album, and field notebook about some aspect of life in Alaska. Together, the 99 issues published since 1972 create one of the most complete portraits available of Alaska's landscapes, people, natural features, and industries.
Penny Rennick is editor of Alaska Geographic Society publications, and Kathy Doogan is production director. The two women have worked together at the Society for some 20 years. With a total staff of five and occasional student interns to help them, they coordinate the writing, editing, production, and marketing of four issues of Alaska Geographic® each year.
"Once we choose a topic for a monograph," Rennick said, "we have to decide what aspects we want to cover, who knows about those subjects, whether we can reach them, and where we can get photos." For the next six to nine months, Rennick works with writers and photographers, researches and writes certain sections, and provides Doogan with information for creating maps. Doogan designs the book, creates maps on the computer, and lays out the pages in a desktop publishing program. Photos and page layouts are sent to Seattle for conversion into film, which goes to Minnesota, where books are printed, bound, and packaged for delivery.
Over the years, Alaska Geographic® has shared the changing story of Alaska with people around the state and throughout the world. Some issues contain stories, maps, and photos of Alaska mammals, glaciers, volcanoes, and weather. Some cover industries such as salmon fishing, forestry, oil, gas, and minerals. Some depict places and regions: Kodiak Island, Sitka, the Pribilof Islands, the Brooks Range, and Lake Clark/Lake Iliamna.
"If you cover a very large area, you have to leave things out," Rennick said. "If you use a smaller area, you can cover more detail." Over the years various issues have focused on Alaska's Great Interior, Cook Inlet Country, Prince William Sound, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the Kotzebue Basin, South-east Alaska, and the Tanana Basin.
Alaska Geographic® also deals with current events. In 1972, as preparations for oil drilling began near Prudhoe Bay, the first issue of Alaska Geographic® focused on the North Slope. In 1978, when people throughout the world became concerned about whaling, an issue on Alaska whales and whaling was published. Some issues have carried short articles on current topics such as Alaska's wolves, research at archaeological sites, and work by Northern artists.
Rennick came to the Society in 1976 as assistant to the managing editor. "I've always liked geography," she said, "ever since the fourth grade. Since then I've continued to acquire geographic knowledge on my own by taking college classes, traveling, and just looking at the world around me. I like the physical environment. I like geology. I like visualizing mountains, trees, rivers, and seeing what people do with their environment in different places." It is also important that she knows writing and proper use of the English language.
Doogan got her training on the job. "I learned to make maps because I had to," she said. "I had a little training in design, but I've learned a lot by studying other people's publications. Computers have made my work so much easier. Using them is a really important part of my job."
Translated literally, geography means earth (geo) description (graphy). Through Alaska Geographic® Kathy Doogan and Penny Rennick share accurate descriptions of Alaska—and "the excitement of their discoveries"—with thousands of readers both inside and outside the state.
Detail from the Iñupiat-English map of the North Slope Borough
The North Slope Borough's official map is bilingual. The map is printed with place names in both English and Iñupiaq. The city named Barrow in English is Utqiagvik in Iñupiaq. What is labeled Nigisaktuvik River in gray type (English) has two labels in dark blue type (Iñupiaq). It is Nigisaqtugvik in its southern reaches and Kuulugruaq in its northeastern part.
The use of both Iñupiaq and English names on the map reflects strong ideas about how the land should be understood and cared for. The map also reflects the North Slope Borough's decision to use the latest in GIS technology to preserve the past as well as prepare for the future.
Most of the Borough's 6,800 residents are Iñupiaq Eskimo. Their families have lived in the region for generations. In the mid-1970s Borough leaders started a project to record all that could be learned from the region's elders about the history and traditional uses of the land. What the elders said has been compiled into the Traditional Land Use Data Base (TLUD), which describes thousands of sites in the borough. The Data Base also cross-references two computerized archaeological inventories: the state-sponsored Alaska Heritage Resource Survey and archaeologist Ed Hall's descriptions of some 2,800 sites. The TLUD, written in both English and Iñupiaq, allows people to create maps and extract information from all three data bases. The site descriptions tell where people traditionally hunt or camp, where graves or ruins are found, where birds nest or caribou feed. They identify fishing areas, traditional whaling sites, or places where people trap foxes or dig roots.
Gordon Brower of Barrow works in the Permitting Office of the Borough Planning Department, and he is also a member of a respected whaling crew. "It would be a big mistake for anybody to try to decide how land should be used without traditional knowledge," Brower said. He explained that when someone requests a permit to construct a building or drill for oil, the Borough officials who must decide whether to grant the permit need to know if the site is important for other reasons. A place may be an ancient burial site, a source of good drinking water, or a place where people have traditionally found shelter from storms.
Information about such traditional uses of the land has been gathered from elders in all parts of the Borough, Brower explained. Once it has been approved by all eight village councils, it is recorded in the Traditional Land Use Inventory in both English and Iñupiaq. The inventory also describes how people use the land today.
|Detail from the North Slope Borough Traditional Land Use Data Base|
Traditional Land Use Inventory Legend
Argilivik - 4, 5, 6, 8.
Igaruni silakun. Tatchim iluliana tatkimnatchiq, kanagnam nalaani. Aaqhaalliqivik. Ukiumi tigiganniagvik, upingaami iqaluaqpagvik. Kuvraqtugvik natchignun. Upingirrigviat mitqutailat.
This site is the northern bight of Elson Lagoon, a traditional hunting area for old-squaw ducks. Winter fox trapping area and summer salmon fishing area. Seal hunting is done with gillnets. Summer home to Arctic terns.
Qipalu - 1, 5, 6, 8, 9. Umiaqagvik atuqtaat ukialliqsiugmata. Tatkivani iglu suli naparuq ukialliqsiuqtuat atuguuraat. Ukiumi nanigiaqtugvik suli upingaami aivvaksiugvik, natchiqsiugvik, suli ugruksiugvik.
Harbor area used during fall whaling. A shelter cabin used by whalers is still standing. Winter trapping area for fox and summer hunting area for walrus, seal and bearded seal.
Adapted from data courtesy of North Slope Borough
Brower began his work at the Borough in early 1995 after he broke his back while working as a mechanic at Prudhoe Bay. Brower said he had had no experience with computers at the time, but on the job he learned ArcView and ArcInfo, the GIS programs the Borough uses. "I also spoke my language and was able to speak to the elders," he said, so he was able to combine working on GIS mapping and traveling to villages to interview elders.
"It's very critical that someone be able to handle this information," Brower said. "Once the elders are gone, we're not going to see it anymore. Tradition can be lost really easily."
Coordinating data about traditional uses with precise GIS mapping is important for other reasons. According to Brower, the Borough's GIS and Traditional Land Use Data Base are used for search and rescue efforts, to help borough residents locate shelter cabins and trails, and even to study caribou migrations.
In 1969 the U.S. Environmental Policy Act took effect. Among other things, it required the writing and distribution of Environmental Impact Statements on proposed development of any federal lands. Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) are intended for the general public as well as for scientists and others with specialized knowledge, but they are usually long and complex. Readers often find it difficult to move from the mass of information presented in writing to a clear understanding of how specific proposals might affect future landscapes.
In 1997-98 the Bureau of Land Management took advantage of new geographic tools and innovative technology to make an EIS more accessible. They worked with John Stroud in the Anchorage office of Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. (ESRI), a computer mapping company. The result: an Internet web site for what is technically called the Northeast National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska Draft Integrated Activity Plan/Environmental Impact Statement, or the NPR-A IAP/EIS.
The 23.4-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska was created in 1923 by President Warren G. Harding to provide for the possibility that the nation might one day need oil. The Reserve is located in arctic Alaska (See Map 40 - Selected National Interest Lands in Section 4 of this atlas.) The NPR-A Draft IAP/EIS focuses specifically on 4.6 million acres in the northeast corner of the Reserve, where drilling for oil has been proposed. It addresses the question of whether drilling for oil and gas should be allowed in that 4.6-million-acre portion of NPR-A (also called the "planning area"), and if so, what should be done to protect other extensive natural and human resources in the area. It provides vast amounts of information about the environment and offers five "alternatives" for managing the area, whether oil drilling is allowed or not.
Stroud created 56 interactive maps showing biological, physical, and social resources and how they relate to areas of low, medium, and high potential for oil. Web site users can zoom in, zoom out, or pan maps showing everything from caribou calving areas, moose density, and major coal bearing rocks, to historical subsistence use, the existing pipeline network, and densities of bird populations, including shorebirds, geese, swans, loons, and pintails.
Comparing the maps with each other and with levels of oil potential reveals the full range of resources in the proposed drilling area and shows how various resources overlap. It is only one step further for web site users to begin evaluating how particular resources could be affected by drilling for oil and building the necessary infrastructure under the various alternatives offered in the IAP/EIS.
"Visitors to the web site are viewing the very same mapping information that the scientists on this project use firsthand," Stroud said. "Then they are invited to send in their comments on the IAP/EIS and the proposed management alternatives.
"It's very exciting that people can see the document, view these maps, search out specific information, and submit their comments in a matter of minutes," Stroud said. "That's quite an improvement over the time it would take through conventional mail."
Over a period of several months, nearly 1,000 visitors used the NPR-A site, averaging 12 minutes per visit. A number of people used the site to file their comments about the draft plan.
In creating the NPR-A site, Stroud integrated a number of new and different technologies, including HTML, component architecture, Internet scripting languages, and client/server programs, all while taking into account current limitations and requirements of web browsers and the Worldwide Web.
And there's more to come. He says, "The next wave of technology will be distributed databases found on both the Internet and CD-ROM. Those will contain documents such as the NPR-A IAP/EIS that work in concert with GIS maps. People will be able to draw polygons around areas of interest and call up information about them almost instantaneously. Very exciting!"
People like to name things—other people, objects, ideas, and geographic features such as Mt. Redoubt or the Tanana River. Names help identify features when we are describing them to others. Names may express a group's sense of ownership of a place. Names can show that people attach special value to a place. They might describe distinctive features that help travelers find their way.
The most extensive study of place names in Alaska was conducted by Donald J. Orth in 1967. Orth's Dictionary of Alaska Place Names includes more than 27,000 names for rivers, lakes, settlements, and other geographic features.
|This map shows Athabaskan place names for some important rivers and streams in western and southcentral Alaska. Most Athabaskan stream names there end in -na', -no', or -nu. They are shown in green letters.
Streams in eastern Alaska, where most Athabaskan stream names end in needkk'e, nkik, ndiig, or niign, are shown in red letters. A blue line shows the boundary between areas where the two different stems for stream are used. The boundary reflects the meeting point of areas historically occupied by differenct language groups of Athabaskan people.
|Athabaskan River Names in Alaska|
|Official name||Language||Native name||Meaning|
|Western southcentral Alaska|
|1 - Holitna River||Dena'ina||Haghelitnu||grease-current river|
|2 - Talkeetna River||Dena'ina||K'dalkitnu||food-is-stored river|
|3 - Nowitna River||Koyukon||Nogheet No'||frog river|
|4 - Kanuti River||Koyukon||Kk'oonootno'||?-island river|
|5 - Nenana River||Tanana||Neenayh No'||camping-place river|
|6 - South Fork Koyukuk River||Koyukon||Neek'eeleh No'||fish-run-ends river|
|7 - Chena River||Tanana||Ch'eno'||river of something (game)|
|8 - Hoziana River||Koyukon||Oodzaa No'||? river (uncertain meaning)|
|Eastern Alaska at boundary on Yukon River|
|9 - Beaver Creek||Gwich'in||Tsenjik||beaver (fur) creek|
|Koyukon||Tsogho Neekk'e, Tsonjek|
|10 - Porcupine River||Gwich'in||Ch'oonjik||quill river|
|11 - Black River||Gwich'in||Draanjik||cache river|
|at boundary on Tanana River (both stems are used|
|12 - Goodpaster River||Tanana||Jiize Na'||camp robber (gray jay) river|
|13 - Fortymile River||Tanacross||Ch'edzagh Ndiig||ear river|
|14 - Nabesna River||Upper Tanana||Naabiah Niign||? stone river|
Orth's study focused on "official" names—those accepted by the U.S. Board of Geographic names at the time he compiled the Dictionary. Orth recognized, however, that these were not all the names of places in Alaska.
The official place names of Alaska are enriched by the many thousands of oral place names in the various Alaska Native languages. For example, names long used by the Athabaskan Indians, one group of Alaska Natives, extend in a vast, continuous network from Alaska through northern Canada to Hudson Bay. Only a fraction of these oral place names, such as Tanana, Talkeetna, Chena, and Nenana appear on modern maps. Native people, however, memorized the oral place names as they traveled the country in their language areas (See Map 27 - Alaska Native Languages).
Athabaskan names have very interesting meanings. They often refer to food resources, land features, vegetation, or human activities. Sometimes they express direction, or indicate the condition of water flow in a major river system. Unlike people in the European tradition, Athabaskans almost never use personal names for places.
Jim Kari, a toponymist at the Alaska Native Language Center in Fairbanks, has studied Athabaskan place names for more than 20 years. He is currently working to unravel the story behind Athabaskan names for rivers in Alaska.
Kari has found that there is a division in Alaska Athabaskan names for rivers and streams. In the Athabaskan languages of western and southcentral Alaska the stem for stream is usually -na' (with several other spellings such as -no' or -nu). In eastern Alaska the stem for stream is usually -niq'e (with several spellings such as neekk'e, nik'a, njik, ndíig, niign).
The shift in stems for stream in the place names seems to signal an ancient boundary marker between different groups of Athabaskan people. The boundary cuts across the Yukon River around the village of Beaver at the Koyukon-Gwich'in language boundary, and across the Tanana River around Big Delta at the Tanana-Tanacross language boundary.
As Kari and other toponymists study such features as these about Alaska Native place names, the map of Alaska becomes much richer. Layer upon layer is added to our basic understanding, and we develop increased appreciation for the significance of places and the people who live near them.