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Movement makes its first waves to showcase Dena’ina history, culture in Anchorage

In Anchorage, a movement called the place-making movement is making a big splash by bringing representation for the Dena’ina with signs, statues and more.

The place-making movement will focus on multiple sites in Anchorage that hold significance for the Dena’ina. 

Aaron Leggett is the president and chair of the Native Village of Eklutna -- a federally recognized Tribe within the municipality Anchorage. 

Leggett tells of when he began working at the Alaska Native Heritage Center at age 19.

“There was no talk of Dena’ina people. There was no visual representation or recognition," Leggett said. "I met other Native people from around the state. And they asked me, they said, 'Where are you from?' I said, 'I'm from here.' They said, 'no, where is your Native village?' I said, 'Our village is here.' They kind of looked at me puzzled and they said, 'What do you mean?' I said 'I'm from the Native village of Eklutna.' And they said, 'I didn't know that Natives lived here.' It was at that moment that I realized that part of the problem was that there was nowhere virtually that anybody could go to to learn more.”

The village of Eklutna partnered with Anchorage Park Association on the place-naming project. 

“What we're doing here is deepening our sense of place and we're starting along our trails,” said Anchorage Park Association executive director Beth Norlund. 

Westchester Lagoon was the second of the planned sites that will be an educational tool for youth, residents and tourists. 

The theme for the lagoon’s signage and the statue is the Firebag. 

For the Dena’ina, the Firebag means “In it are things” -- serving as a symbol of survival.

Melissa Shaginoff is the artist behind the metal statue that now looks over the Lagoon.

It's purpose is Indigenous joy and power. Its purpose is to make us visable in this community because if we're going to move forward, we have to imagine a place where we're all represented.”  

The statue overlooks the water and has the artistry of a fire bag toward the top. In the middle of the metal neckpiece, there are two phrases; 

  • Dena’inaq’ Elena Ch’itiyux “You are walking on Dena’ina land,” and
  • Ye’uh Qa Ts’Dalts’iyi “Living with the outdoors”

Below the phrases, the true name of “Chester Creek'' is written-- Chanshtnu (CHANCH-noo), meaning grass creek. 
Leggett explains the importance of Chanshtnu to the audience.

Leggett says that the reason why the creek was renamed Chester Creek was because of a misunderstanding of pronunciation that colonizers had. 

“Chanshtnu means grass creek, a lot of people are surprised that the lagoon behind me wasn't a lagoon until the late 1960s when the creek was dammed up," Leggett said. "In fact, if you open up the gates over there and I've seen this done, this all drains out and you'll see that the creek itself still exists there. This was an important location for people from Eklutna. We used this location up into the 1920s when we were forced out of this area.” 

The Anchorage Park Association plans to place more than 10 other statues and signs around the state that hold historical significance for Dena’ina. 

The next place-making sign will be the Nuch’ishtunt or The Place Protected from Wind, located in Point Woronzof.

Members of the Ezi family with their subsistence salmon catch at Nuch'istun t about 1942. From left to right: Pete Ezi Sr., Pete Ezi Jr., Margie Rousseau Rosser, and Knik Prince. Photo provided by Alberta Stephan

The site was used as a fish camp throughout the year until the early 1950s when the  governmental authority closed commercial fishing in the area. Making the Indigenous people move to Fire Island (Nutul’iy) and Point Possession (Tuyqun)

The following is a list of confirmed sites, their meaning, and names go as follows:

  • Nuch'ishtunt is Point Woronzof; means Place Protected from the Wind
  • Ch'atanaltsegh in Fish Creek; means Where Yellow Water Comes Out
  • Dgheyaytnu in Ship Creek; means Stickleback Creek – little fish used to make soup if you didn’t have food
  • Nen Ghiłgedi in Earthquake Park; means Rotten Land
  • Ułchena Bada Huch'ilyut in Point Campbell, a battle site – “where we pulled up the Aleutic’s boat”
  • Qin Cheghi is Crying Ridge, a ridge along the north side of upper Campbell Creek – near Flattop (the sign will be at Flattop parking lot)
  • Qin Cheghitnu in Campbell Creek and is the creek that comes from Crying Ridge, the ridge along the north side of upper Campbell Creek (The sign will be at Campbell Park)
  • Hkaditali is Potter Marsh; means Driftwood and Other Debris Washed up from Shipwrecks
  • Idlu Bena in Eklutna Lake. The current village of Eklutna is described as a place by the two hills, which are said to be the bones of a lake monster that washed out in a flood from Eklutna lake
  • Chishkatnu Nudghiłent in Thunderbird Falls; means Big Red Ochre Creek Falls 

To be involved in the movement, go to the Anchorage Park Associationwebsite.

Hannah Bissett is a Dena'ina woman who is currently enrolled at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Hannah is pursuing an International Studies degree and is president of two student organizations on campus.