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Juneau’s Riverbend Elementary could soon be called Kax̱dig̱oowu Héen

Riverbend Principal Elizabeth Pisel-Davis poses in front of the school on Feb. 28, 2022. (Photo by Bridget Dowd/KTOO)
Riverbend Principal Elizabeth Pisel-Davis poses in front of the school on Feb. 28, 2022. (Photo by Bridget Dowd/KTOO)

Juneau’s Riverbend Elementary School may soon be getting a new Lingít name.

Kax̱dig̱oowu Héen translates to “going back to clear water.” It’s used to refer to a part of the Mendenhall River. And could soon be used to refer to the elementary school that sits on its banks in Juneau’s Mendenhall Valley.

Juneau’s board of education discussed the proposed name change at its Tuesday night meeting. A’akw Kwáan elder, Bob Sam spoke at the meeting. He said the name honors the strength and resilience of the Lingít people who were able to set fish traps in unforgiving currents.

“It requires great strength to hold the fish trap and the fish net in the river and we’re going to use it as an allegory for the school,” Sam said. “The fish net will be seen as a safety net to wrap around the students and make them feel safe when they come into the school.”

Sam and Fran Houston worked together to come up with the name. Houston is the tribal spokesperson for the A’akw Kwáan. Her Lingít name is Seikoonie and she’s from the Yaxté Hit. Houston said when she talked to other members, they were thrilled that the school wanted a Lingít name.

“It is so beautiful that these children have that opportunity and what’s being taught to them now,” she said. “Even back in my day, it wasn’t even thought of and I know it makes all of us stand tall and be proud.”

The school also put a video together about the new name, featuring its students.

Houston said when she saw the video, she was “tickled pink.”

“It’s a gift for these students, and they can say the Lingít name better than I can,” she said. “It is so wonderful that these schools want the Lingít names and I don’t think we’re done yet.”

Other schools in Juneau have added Lingít names to their existing titles, but Riverbend Principal Elizabeth Pisel-Davis said they want to replace their name completely.

“It’s very important to bring these names back to life,” Pisel-Davis said. “So we see it as not eliminating a name, but reclaiming the name that was always here.”

The hope is also that by having only a Lingít name and no English option, the students will get in the habit of using it. The board is expected to vote on the name change at its next regular meeting on May 10.