Place Names Project Keeps Traditional Science Alive

“The Inupiaq language is an environmental language. It’s tied directly to the land, the air, the oceans, the seasons. Place names are given for scientific reasons, Inupiaq scientific reasons, directly associated with our physical environment in some way or another.” – Kotzebue LCC Workshop Participant

For over a decade, park units across Alaska have made progress on implementing the National Park Service Place Name project, which is digitizing legacy toponym information while also gathering new data through collaborations with Native communities associated with park lands. Although often referred to under the umbrella of “place names,” these data offer a wealth of information about far more than simply the name of a place or a point on a map. Stories and observations recorded in conjunction with place names provide local knowledge and observations regarding seasonality, weather, natural phenomena, travel, early settlement, historic activities, beliefs, mythology and more.

Existing northwest Alaska place name datasets often contain observations about the natural environment, including animal behaviors, habitation and migration locations, geologic features, plant gathering areas, and much more. Some discussions highlight changes in the natural landscape as well as observed impacts of such changes. This traditional knowledge can be used to inform, and perhaps direct, current research.

Examples: maiġñiġruaq This lake was once a large lake with lots of muskrats. Now, it has become just ground. Also known as Sirraġniġruaq. (Shungnak informants) Siuqaqtuaq Lit. once there were sheefish. This was once a big lake near Pitqiq. It is now a creek. (Ambler informants). (Project description by Eileen Devinney from the poster, “Application for Digitized Traditional Place Names and Place Based Ecological Knowledge in Alaska’s National Parks.”)

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