8 Tlingit Place Names We Should All Be Using in Kichx̱áan (Ketchikan)
What are the Indigenous names of important places in our area?
I’ve previously written about 10 Tlingit Words We Should All Be Using in Southeast Alaska and made a Comprehensive List of Tlingit Names for All the Present-Day Communities in Lingít Aaní. These are good starting points for everyone to start learning a little bit of Lingít yoo x̲ʼatángi (the Tlingit language) to use as they live in or visit Lingít Aaní (Tlingit Country).
Now, I want to use this article to focus on my hometown and favorite place in the world, the second-largest community in Lingít Aaní:
(or as it's written in English, Ketchikan)
Lingít Aaní is an amazing part of the world, and everyone who lives here has to acknowledge its incredible beauty. However, what often goes unacknowledged is the deep history and heritage of the region, much of which is preserved through Indigenous languages and Indigenous place names.
There are a number of places across Lingít Aaní where the commonly-used names are anglicizations (English-language versions) of names in Lingít yoo x̲ʼatángi: These range from Yakutat (Yaawkdáat) and Skagway (Shg̱agwei) in the north to Klawock (Lawáak) and Ketchikan (Kichx̱áan) in the south.
However, there are many other places that we see, visit, live, work, and play in all the time that we refer to by names imposed arbitrarily through colonization. We would understand and appreciate these incredible places far more if we knew and used their Indigenous names.
Here are eight Lingít place names in and around Kichx̱áan that all of us who live and visit here should be using:
- Kichx̱áan, meaning “near the wing,” for the place commonly known as “Ketchikan,”
- Kichx̱áan Héeni, meaning “Ketchikan Creek,”
- Kichx̱áan Xʼáatʼi, meaning “Ketchikan Island,” for the place commonly known as “Pennock Island,”
- Kichx̱áan X̱’aak, meaning “Ketchikan Ravine,” for the place commonly known as “Tongass Narrows,”
- Lgòoji X’àa, meaning “Hilly Point,” for the place commonly known as “Gravina Island,”
- Yòowatsisgi X’àa, meaning “Floating Point,” for the place commonly known as “Mountain Point,”
- Wòotsàag̱áa X’àayi, meaning “Cane Point,” for the place commonly known as “Point Higgins,” and
- Naa.áa, meaning “Nation Lake,” for the place commonly known as “Naha.”
Note: If the spellings of these names look scary to you, and you don’t think you could ever pronounce them, please hold on! I will provide some tips on each of the difficult letters, plus an audio recording at the end!
But first, here are the stories behind these names:
1. Kichx̱áan (Ketchikan): You will notice that the first four place names (half the list) all contain the name Kichx̱áan, and of course that’s because it’s an extremely special and important name! There have been several theories about the meaning of the name Kichx̱áan shared and repeated over the years, and I’m sure non-Lingít people have probably been speculating about it ever since the German geographer brothers Arthur and Aurel Krause first wrote the name down in 1881.
I don’t have the authority or linguistic knowledge to say for certain what Kichx̱áan means. However, the explanation that is recorded in the authoritative book on Lingít place names, Haa Léelk’w Hás Aaní Saax’ú, Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land, is that Kichx̱áan means “near the wing,” specifically the wing of an eagle. Now, as to where that meaning came from, whether part of the geography resembled an eagle’s wing, or there was some other story—that I cannot say. Nonetheless, we know the name must be at least hundreds, if not thousands of years old.
I learned recently that before the name turned into “Ketchikan” in English, Kichx̱áan was written down as “Kichikan” in the 1890 U.S. Census. That spelling makes a lot more sense, since the first vowel sound in the Lingít name is a short “I” sound, (as in “is”), not a short “E” (“eh”) sound.
Kichx̱áan really isn’t that hard to say, and everyone should be able to start using it more frequently as the authentic, original name of our community: The only sound in the name that isn’t found in English is the X̱. X in Lingít (without the macron or line beneath the letter) is like a raspy H sound, the same as the sound the CH makes in a Scottish “loch” or Hebrew “challah.” With a macron (the short line) below it, X̱ represents a more unique sound — the raspy H again, except this time made further back in your throat. If your first tries pronouncing Kichx̱áan mostly just sound like “kich-haan,” that’s ok! You will still be honoring the original Indigenous name of the place by trying your best to say it.
2. Kichx̱áan Héeni (Ketchikan Creek): Now that you’re starting to practice how to say Kichx̱áan, we may as well add some more words to that place name.
As you learn about place names in Lingít, or many other Indigenous languages, you’ll realize that the cultural understanding of what types of places should be given names and what features a single name might include can differ a great deal from how we use place names in English. In Lingít, it seems the name Kichx̱áan did not just refer to the land that is now part of the City of Ketchikan’s downtown area. Instead, the name also referred to a far more important feature — the salmon stream flowing through that land.
Now, if Lingít needed to specify that they were talking only about the stream, they could of course add a word — héen, which can mean river, stream, creek, or just fresh water in general. If a noun belongs to something else, many languages usually need to show a possessive form, (like “apostrophe S” in English), and in Lingít the possessive is most commonly created by adding a suffix -i to the noun that is being possessed, so “Ketchikan’s Creek” becomes Kichx̱áan Héeni.
Do you know what early American settlers called Ketchikan Creek when they weren’t using the anglicized version of Kichx̱áan? It was the most boring, unoriginal name imaginable — “Fish Creek.” I, for one, can’t imagine what our community would be like if settlers had ignored the one-of-a-kind Lingít name for this place and had stuck with Fish Creek instead. If you’re continuing to practice the names as we go, héeni is quite a simple word to pronounce with no difficult sounds, like combining the words “he” and “knee” in English, just with emphasis and a higher tone placed on the syllable “hée.” (That’s why it has the accent mark.)
3. Kichx̱áan Xʼáatʼi (“Pennock Island”): The last piece of the puzzle for what would have made up the entire Lingít idea of the place that is “Kichx̱áan” is the small island lying directly in front of the mouth of the creek — the island we know in English as “Pennock.”
If we keep our minds open to how different cultures might understand what a single “place” is, it doesn’t seem too unreasonable to consider that what was most important to the Lingít historically was the salmon stream, the land immediately around that stream, and the island directly in front of that stream that sheltered it. All three features are interconnected and in the same immediate vicinity, and all could be called Kichx̱áan.
These days, however, it would probably be best to specify whether we mean a community on land, a stream, or the island in front of that stream, so it makes sense to refer to the island as Kichx̱áan Xʼáatʼi. Xʼáatʼ is one word in Lingít for island, and the suffix -i makes it possessed again, so Kichx̱áan Xʼáatʼi is “Kichx̱áan’s island.”
“Pennock” Island was named around 1895 after a prospector and con man named Homer Pennock. Pennock certainly did not “discover” Kichx̱áan Xʼáatʼi. White men had been sailing past it for over a hundred years by that time. He also never settled on the island, and he doesn’t even seem to have spent any significant time around Kichx̱áan, as he was busy conning other prospectors by leading them farther north. Even if Pennock had been an upstanding man, he already has another significant place in Alaska named after him — the place he led his marks — the town of Homer. The story of Homer Pennock just goes to show how arbitrary the imposition of colonial names on the landscape was, and, frankly, how unworthy many of those names are of our continued usage.
Xʼáatʼi is a somewhat difficult word to pronounce if you’ve never learned any Lingít before, (or even if you have!), since it features two “pinched” sounds (marked by apostrophes) that aren’t used in English. Xʼ is like the “raspy H” I mentioned before, except now it is “pinched” and you need to cut the sound short, rather than just letting the air flow through your throat. The Tʼ sound near the end of the word is then pinched as well: You can try practicing the pinched T by itself, but then I recommend adding the vowel that comes after, so instead of saying “ti” like the word “tea,” say it “tʼea” with the T cut off as you add the vowel sound.
4. Kichx̱áan X̱’aak (“Tongass Narrows”): It’s hard to live in Kichx̱áan without looking out at this body of water every single day — Kichx̱áan X̱’aak, or what we refer to in English as “Tongass Narrows.” Many lucky people can see it from their homes, and everyone else sees it whenever they move around the island for work or play. The present-day city of Kichx̱áan has expanded well beyond the area around the creek that originally had that name, but what continues to define our community’s geography is the ocean channel, Kichx̱áan X̱’aak.
When you think about it, “narrows” is a pretty weird word to describe a body of water in English: Lots of things get narrow, so can anything have a “narrows”? X̱’aak is a somewhat more descriptive word, since it means “ravine” or “gorge.” The Lingít word specifies that not only is the channel “narrow,” but that it is formed by mountains on both sides. The well-used name “Tongass” has its own interesting history to it, but I will save that story for another time. For now, suffice it to say that “Tongass” is a different place, and not a name that Lingít would have applied to the ocean channel in front of Kichx̱áan. Kichx̱áan X̱’aak is what we should be saying instead.
To pronounce x̱’aak, you can combine the ideas you’ve learned over the past few words: The X̱’ sound is tough — and extremely unique among world languages — but the idea is that it’s a pinched raspy H made in the back of your throat. Yep, it’s all the elements I mentioned up to this point combined together! Again, though, it’s not essential that you pronounce this word perfectly. (I certainly don’t!) If the way you pronounce it the first time sounds more like “Kich-haan hawk,” that’s ok.
What’s important is the idea that when we live in Lingít Aaní, it’s a valuable, respectful, and powerful thing to do to learn and use the original names for the places on this land. People have traveled through Kichx̱áan X̱’aak for thousands of years, and we can call that waterway the name it was given long before it was ever called “Tongass Narrows.”
5. Lgòoji X’àa (“Gravina Island”): Perhaps the most important geographic feature that creates Kichx̱áan X̱’aak is Lgòoji X’àa, or what’s known in English as “Gravina Island.” As with Kichx̱áan X̱’aak, Lgòoji X’àa is something that almost everyone in Kichx̱áan looks at all the time, especially if you live on the West End.
Before I continue, though, I do have a confession to make: When I was growing up on the West End, I looked out from my house at the mountains on Lgòoji X’àa virtually every day, but I never knew the names of any of the mountains — not even in English! However, now that I have learned their names in English, I almost wish I hadn’t. They include “Curve Mountain,” “High Mountain” (the highest peak on the ridge, though not the highest on the island), and the peak that happens to be right across the water from my house, “Nipple Mountain.” [Insert facepalm emoji here.]
Lgòoji X’àa literally means “hilly point,” and may refer specifically to a particular hill or mountain on “Dall Ridge,” which is the ridge of peaks on the western side of the island, not the northeastern side that includes “Nipple,” “Curve,” and “High.” Again, different cultures think of different places as worthy of names, so perhaps it was all the specific locations around the island’s coast that had the most important given names, and having a name for the island as a whole or names for each of the mountain peaks wasn’t a big deal. However, it does seem that even if it also refers to a specific point on the island, Lgòoji X’àa was a name that could be used for all of the island. It is, in any case, a far more appropriate name for the place than “Gravina,” who was an Italian aristocrat who served the Spanish Empire, and who, as far as I know, never even sailed on the Pacific Ocean, let alone to Lingít Aaní.
The trickiest part of pronouncing Lgòoji X’àa is the beginning. The L sound in Lingít is not the L sound in English: It is the “voiceless alveolar lateral fricative” (to use linguistic jargon), or the Welsh LL sound, like in the name Llewellyn, or as found five times in the infamous Welsh place name Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.
Here’s the easiest way I know how to explain how to make the Lingít L sound: Put your tongue on the back of your top front teeth as if you’re about to say a word that starts with an English L. (Try it!) Then, blow air out around the sides of your tongue. That’s the L sound in Lingít, and then you can just combine it with “gòoji” (said the way it looks), and you’re in business!
6. Yòowatsisgi X’àa (“Mountain Point”): “Mountain Point” is one of the most important reference points for the community of Ketchikan, since it marks the southernmost point of the part of Revillagigedo Island we live on. It’s where, traveling on South Tongass Highway, you turn and are no longer traveling south, (southeast, in fact), but rather north (northeast).
However, the name “Mountain Point” is objectively pretty boring. I’m not sure if it’s better, worse, or just about equal with “Fish Creek” and “High Mountain.” It was named by a U.S. Navy officer in 1883, and I suppose no one ever bothered trying to replace it with a better name. Now, before I get accused of hypocrisy, I will say that no, Indigenous place names are not automatically super creative or poetic just because they are Indigenous. After all, the previous Lingít place name on this list means “Hilly Point,” which isn’t much different than “Mountain Point.” Still, not all Indigenous place names need to be justified as creative, mysterious, insightful, or poetic in order to be deserving of respect and use. They are still the original names on the land, used for thousands of years, and they were not imposed on another people’s land through colonization. On that basis alone, these place names should be remembered and used.
In the case of Mountain Point, though, its original Lingít name is quite poetic and insightful. It’s Yòowatsisgi X’àa, which means “Floating Point.” Now, that name might sound weird, given that land doesn’t usually float—at least, not in the way we’d usually think to use that word—but I think the name makes a lot of sense. If you go out in a boat off of Yòowatsisgi X’àa and then look back at it, I believe the land looks very much like it is floating, disconnected and distinct from the rest of the island behind it. My theory could be wrong, and the name might have another origin or meaning, but it is a poetic name nonetheless, and one worth using.
There are no new difficult sounds to make in pronouncing Yòowatsisgi X’àa. If you’ve already been practicing the word x’àa in Lgòoji X’àa, now you have another opportunity to practice more! Yòowatsisgi, pronounced just like the words “You-what-sis-ghee,” is also a pretty fun word to say.
7. Wòotsàag̱áa X’àayi (“Point Higgins”): At the other end of the southeast-to-northwest coastline along Kichx̱áan X̱ʼaak from Yòowatsisgi X’àa is Wòotsàag̱áa X’àayi, known in English as “Point Higgins.”
Now, in the case of Point Higgins, I do have to admit that the English name has a unique and intersting story behind it. At first glance, you might assume that “Higgins” was just the name of some American soldier or settler, or perhaps someone working for the Royal Navy from the time when British ships explored the waters of Lingít Aaní. Nope. Point Higgins is in fact named for Ambrosio O’Higgins, an Irish nobleman forced out of Ireland who traveled to Spain and then Chile, eventually working his way up through the Spanish government to become the royal governor of Chile and viceroy of Peru. Ambrosio’s illegitimate son, Bernardo O’Higgins, then famously helped lead the fight for Chilean independence. The seat of the O’Higgins family in Ireland was Ballynary, which got turned into “Vallenar” in Spanish, which then lent its name to Vallenar Bay, on Lgòoji X’àa.
In spite of all that surprising and interesting history, though, it remains true that “Higgins” is an arbitrary name that was imposed on Indigenous land through European colonization. Ambrosio O’Higgins made no contribution to the people of Alaska, and certainly had nothing to do with any part of Revillagigedo Island (which is, itself, named for a Spanish nobleman). Meanwhile, the original Lingít name, Wòotsàag̱áa X’àayi, has its own interesting meaning far more relevant to the place itself. It means “Cane Point,” or perhaps more accurately, “Point of Canes,” since you may notice that the word for “point” is not just x’àa, like in Lgòoji X’àa or Yòowatsisgi X’àa, but it is in possessive form with a -yi suffix added to it. At first, I assumed that the name must refer simply to reeds growing on the point. Since then, however, I learned that it refers to a story in which people left their dancing canes on the beach. I don’t know any more details of that story, but that teaches me not to make assumptions.
The name Wòotsàag̱áa X’àayi also features one more difficult sound in Lingít, the G̱ sound. As with X̱, the macron or line beneath the letter indicates that it’s said in the back of your throat. So, when you say the syllable g̱áa, instead of just making a regular G sound (“gah”) that happens at the back of your mouth, try making the G̱ sound further back in your throat.
8. Naa.áa (Naha): I’ve saved one of the most special names — and the easiest to say — for last.
“Naha” is a very special place north of Wòotsàag̱áa X’àayi on the western side of Revillagigedo Island. Many people who grew up in Kichx̱áan or have boated around its waters have visited there, and it’s such a wonderful location, Ketchikan Indian Community recently purchased the old campground there to use for cultural activities.
It’s also such a special place that settlers couldn’t manage to give it a new name, and adopted the Lingít name, except with an extra sound inserted to make the name “make sense” in English. The Lingít name is Naa.áa, with two “ah” vowel sounds next to each other, separated by a glottal stop (represented with a period in Lingít spelling). Now, even if you’ve never heard the term “glottal stop,” you use it all the time, like every time you say “uh-oh,” or if you pronounce “Hawaiʼi” correctly (with two distinct vowel sounds coming after the W). A glottal stop is just what naturally has to happen in our throats to separate two vowel sounds. It’s just that in English, we don’t have any word that puts ah-ah together, so settlers put an H sound in the middle of Naa.áa.
We don’t have to do that. Once you’ve learned that the original name is Naa.áa, it’s just as easy to say as uh-oh. If you pronounce the Lingít name correctly, it also reveals the true meaning of the name. Naa is a powerful word in Lingít that can refer to different large groups of people—a clan, a moiety (one half of the traditional matrilineal Lingít social structure), a tribe, or a nation. Áa is a short and sweet word that means lake. Naa.áa, then, can be translated as “Nation Lake”—a special place indeed that deserves to be pronounced in the original way.
Now that I’ve shared all these details about the eight place names above, it’s time for me to follow through on my promise to share more resources to help you practice saying them yourself:
First, if you have questions about any of the specific letters in Lingít spelling, or want to practice letter sounds by themselves, I strongly recommend watching this video, which explains the sounds, or this one, which provides sample words for each sound. Both videos were made by X̱ʼunei Lance Twitchell, Professor of Alaska Native Languages at the University of Alaska Southeast, who has also created an amazing website with many more resources here.
Second, if you just want to hear what the eight place names on my list sound like—or what a Lingít language learner trying to pronounce them accurately sounds like—here is an audio recording of me pronouncing the names. I am still very much a learner of Lingít, so my pronunciations are far from perfect. Nonetheless, I hope my attempt demonstrates that anyone can learn these words and try their best to pronounce the sounds as accurately as possible. You do not have to be Lingít to use and say these names. I am a dleit ḵáa (a white man) and I will try my best to use them as often as I can. These names should live in the voices and ears of everyone who resides on and visits this land.
Kichx̱áan: If we all get on board with using these names, all of us living along Kichx̱áan X̱’aak, from Yòowatsisgi X’àa to Wòotsàag̱áa X’àayi and beyond, we can make a genuine difference in bringing back more of the priceless cultural heritage that has been threatened, suppressed, and covered up for so long.
Yee gu.aa yáx̱ xʼwán! (Be brave, y’all!)
Please leave a comment below if you want to share thoughts or questions.