Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Just 15 years ago, most Anchorage, Alaska residents wouldn’t have been able to answer the question: who lived here before settlers arrived?

Aaron Leggett, Dena’Ina, has been working to change that. He’s president of the Native Village of Eklutna and senior curator of Alaska History and Indigenous Culture at the Anchorage Museum. He said the Dena’ina Athabascan people were virtually invisible until a civic and convention center was named after them.

“So in 2006, the Dena'ina Center opened and it was kind of a shocker for most people because they'd never heard the name Dena'ina. They didn't think about Anchorage being an Indigenous place,” Leggett said.

Having their name on a building used by thousands of people year-around was a “game changer,” Leggett said. That plus land acknowledgements have brought the Dena’ina people into focus. Leggett said the growing awareness prompted the Eklutna tribe to do more to build Anchorage’s identity as an Indigenous place. Eklutna is 24 miles outside Anchorage, one of several small Dena’ina communities in the area.

“You know, Anchorage as a community is only about a hundred years old, but our history goes back well over a thousand years,” Leggett said.

Place names. Aaron Leggett, Dena’Ina, President of the Native Village of Eklutna and the Senior Curator of Alaska History, Indigenous Culture at the Anchorage Museum, on Aug. 3, 2021, at Westchester Lagoon in Anchorage Alaska. Leggett was one of the speakers at the unveiling of a placename marker for the lagoon, which was called Chanshtnu, which means “grassy creek". in Dena'ina. (pronounced (Chonch-new). (Photo from video by Joaqlin Estus).

Tuesday, about a hundred people gathered in Anchorage to celebrate the unveiling of a place-name marker. A post with information about the original Dena’Ina name for Westchester Lagoon has been installed at a popular downtown park. Chanshtnu means “grassy creek” in Dena’ina.

Artist Melissa Shaginoff, Ahtna Athabascan and Paiute, designed the iron artwork on the post. She said the Indigenous Place Names Project picked the fire bag as their emblem. Firebags were used by the Dena’ina people to carry fire-making tools and tinder.

PLACE NAMES Artist Melissa Shaginoff standing next to the place-name marker for "Chanshntnu", or Grassy Creek, the Dena'ina name for Westchester Lagoon. The artwork represents a fire bag decorated with dentalium shells. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus).

“So we decided on this object because it really represents a couple of things for Dena’ina people,” Shaginoff said. It’s valued not only for its beauty and the technology of a utilitarian object, but also as a symbol of leadership and stewardship of Dena’ina people, Shaginoff said.

At the unveiling, Shaginoff wore a fire bag she’d made and decorated with dentalium shells. “I made this fire bag, you know, in connection to this object, to the sign. Dentalium represents wealth to Denai people. And wealth to Denai people really represents a responsibility towards community. 

"If you have a lot of dentalium, you're a good person. You're a good leader. You're someone who can care for other people. So we really wanted to represent this – that this place-name sign is as much about Indigenous visibility as it represents Indigenous stewardship and care for this land for thousands of years and today,” Shaginoff said.

PLACE NAMES Shown here is a Dena'ina firebag necklace featuring dentalium shells. Historically the bag was used to carry tools and tinder for building fires. It's valued for its beauty and as a utilitarian object, according to the artist who made it, Melissa Shaginoff, Ahtna Athabascan and Paiute. She said it symbolizes the responsibility toward community, stewardship of the land, and leadership. Aug. 3, 2021, at Westchester Lagoon in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo from video by Joaqlin Estus).

The Indigenous Place Names Project has installed two place-name markers. It’s raising money for another 30 to place in parks and along the city’s 120 miles of paved bike trails. Funding for the project came from grants from the Anchorage Parks Foundation, the Rasmuson Foundation and several other donors. They hope to create an audio tour, a website, and other projects to enrich Anchorage spaces with cultural history and relevance.

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