The Best Time Was 1965. The Second Best Time is Now.

Schoenbar Should Be Named Kichx̱áan Héeni Middle School.

Peter Stanton
9 min readFeb 25, 2024

Disclosure: I am an employee of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District, but the following article represents my personal views only, not those of my employer.

Note: This article has been updated in order to better clarify the historical clan ownership of Kichx̱áan Héeni (Ketchikan Creek), and to correct my statement on the amount of money that John Shoenbar stole and the debts he left unpaid in Ketchikan: It was not “worth tens of thousands today, adjusted for inflation,” as I stated in the original version. It was actually well over $200,000. Plus, he also ran away from over $600,000 in debts from communities in Nevada and Oregon.

On February 20th, 2024, the following was posted on Facebook:

The Ketchikan Indian Community Tlingit Language Program account posted: “KICʼs Language Program has started seeking support in an initiative to change the name of Schoenbar Middle School to the traditional place name of the creek the school resides next to, Kichx̱áan Héeni (Ketchikan Creek).”

Within the first few hours after the post, I saw an immediate, enormous response. And, by two days later, it had been shared 130 times—far more shares than I remember seeing a Facebook post about Kichx̱áan (Ketchikan) having in quite a long time.

The vast majority of people who shared the post expressed positive support for the idea of changing the name of Schoenbar Middle School. And, the majority of people commenting on these posts were enthusiastic supporters as well.

I think that's amazing. What it shows is that we have a lot of people here in Kichx̱áan who recognize the value of history, cultural heritage, and the things that truly form the foundation of what our community is.

The best name for a middle school that sits alongside Kichx̱áan Héeni (Ketchikan Creek) has to be Kichx̱áan Héeni Middle School.

If you learn the history of Kichx̱áan, you'll realize that this community would not exist if it wasn't for Kichx̱áan Héeni. It is because of this salmon stream, and because it was stewarded and utilized by Indigenous people for thousands of years, that Kichx̱áan (also called “Fish Creek,” Kichikan, and Ketchikan) became the community it is today.

More than any other resource or industry, the salmon of Kichx̱áan Héeni and surrounding waters have consistently formed the foundation for this community. They're the reason that the Lingít Neix̱.ádi clan of the Sanyaa Ḵwáan (Cape Fox people) and then the G̱aanax̱.ádi clan of the Taantʼa Ḵwáan (Tongass people) owned and valued this land. They're the reason so many settlers, immigrants, and Indigenous people from neighboring lands have been coming here for well over a hundred years. They're the reason that Ketchikan was (briefly) the most populous city in Alaska in 1927, and why—depending on how you count it—we are still the 4th-largest community in Alaska today. There are few places on this planet where you can find such good fishing for five species of salmon.

And what name for a school would do more to honor the history and heritage of our community than Kichx̱áan Héeni? I can't think of one.

So, why would we even need to discuss changing the name of the school on Kichx̱áan Héeni, when the name the school should have is so obvious?

We all know that local government—or any kind of goverment—doesn't always make the most informed, rational decisions. Local historian June Allen wrote about how, when Kichx̱áan had a new junior high school built in 1965, some local leaders didn't want to “set a long-term precedent of naming schools after people,” so they named the new school after the road it was built on, Schoenbar Road.

It seems those leaders in 1965 didn't connect the dots and recognize the ridiculousness of that decision—that naming the school after Schoenbar Road meant they were naming it after John Shoenbar, the man the road was originally named for. Sure, they couldn't look it up on the internet, but I think people in 1965 still could have asked around and managed to do a little research.

As June Allen detailed in her article, John Shoenbar was a conman. Or, putting it in the most generous terms possible, he was a man who failed to live up to the trust others placed in him, and failed to pay his debts, when his attempts at being a prospector didn’t pan out.

In fact, Shoenbar ripped off the Ketchikan Commercial Club (predecessor to the Chamber of Commerce) and at least one man who was far more important to the history of Kichx̱áan than he was—J.R. Heckman. Heckman's legacy is not all rosy, and his work in Alaska's fishing industry—especially his invention of the floating fish trap—contributed significantly to the rapid exhaustion of salmon runs by the mid-twentieth century. However, I don't think there's any question that men like Heckman helped make Ketchikan what it is today.

Shoenbar, meanwhile, hardly left a mark, aside from the money he stole from Heckman and the rest of the community. According to local historian Dave Kiffer, the amount Shoenbar owed the Commercial Club, Heckman, and other community members (including Kiffer's great-grandfather) was approximately $7,500 in 1907. That's worth well over $200,000 today, adjusted for inflation.

Presumably, Shoenbar's nonexistent legacy and insignifcant impact on the community (other than the money he stole) was why decisionmakers in 1965 didn't even realize they were naming Schoenbar Middle School after a person. It's difficult to even find the tunnels Shoenbar made, which were never a real mine, and never produced any gold. Appropriately, they only ever contained fool's gold.

What does it say about our values as a community if we insist on continuing to commemorate an insignificant conman in the name of our main middle school? Schoenbar Middle School never should have been named Schoenbar Middle School.

But, even if the wrong decision was made in 1965, the next best thing we can do is to change the name now.

the Wayfinder kootéeyaa (totem pole), carved by Lingít artist Kenneth (Kelly) White and students, in front of the school that should be named Kichx̱áan Héeni Middle School

If anyone says that renaming Schoenbar Middle School would be an act of “erasing history,” please ask them: “What history is being erased?” “How is it being erased?” and, “What history do you think is most important to commemorate?”

I have lived in Kichx̱áan since 1994, when I was three years old, and I attended both Valley Park Elementary School and White Cliff Elementary School. No schools exist with those names today.

However, the history of those schools was not “erased.” Neither was the history of Main School, or the Bureau of Indian Affairs school on Deermount Street, or any other institution that lives on in the writing of local historians and the memories of the people who experienced these places or heard stories about them over the years.

No one is going to forget or “erase” that the community of Ketchikan had a school named Schoenbar Middle School from 1965 up until—hopefully—2024. The history of the Schoenbar name will live on, no matter how ridiculous it was that John Shoenbar was commemorated in the first place.

In the meantime, renaming our main middle school Kichx̱áan Héeni Middle School would show where our true values lie. It would reconnect us with our roots, and honor some of the most significant parts of our geography, history, and heritage—the land, the water, the salmon, and the Indigenous people who preserved them.

In the interest of being comprehensive, I would now like to address some other potential criticisms and expressions of opposition to this name change:

First, some people are very quick to criticize the potential cost of changing a school's name. Most of the extra time it will take to change the name in documents, websites, and other locations will be time spent at no extra cost by salaried school district employees. If you know teachers, you know we are devoted to our vocation and we are constantly doing extra work for free. Most staff will be more than happy to take the time to change the name, whenever and wherever it needs to be done.

I have seen some people on Facebook mention the cost of jerseys and other equipment. I am not sure if these people understand the amount of money that is spent on school gear every year. In a middle school for 7th and 8th-graders where students only stay for two years, the changing out of school gear is a cost that is incurred constantly, regardless of whether the school's name is changed or not. And in any case, it’s not as if everything that has “Schoenbar” written on it will be thrown away and replaced immediately.

Ultimately, the realistic cost of changing Schoenbar Middle School's name to Kichx̱áan Héeni Middle School—not including the costs of things that the school district pays for all the time anyway—will probably be a few thousand dollars for sign installations. To put things in perspective: There's no way that the name change will cost more than the inflation-adjusted value of the money John Shoenbar stole from the people of Ketchikan.

If that few thousand dollars for signs still sounds like a problem and a waste of money you, and if you don't think that cost is worth it to have a school name that we can be proud of and a school name that truly represents our community's history and values, then please recognize you want to pinch pennies within a school district budget of millions of dollars per year.

When an experienced teacher retires and an inexperienced teacher is hired, it saves the school district tens of thousands of dollars. When a position goes unfilled and the district is shortstaffed, it can save tens of thousands, even a hundred thousand or more. These are not great things for our community or our students, but they do save money. Changing a few signs and spending some time editing documents and websites is a small, small cost to pay to represent our values and remember our history.

an epic scene portraying a knight in traditional Northwest Coast Indigenous armor, made by X̱aadas (Haida) artist Donald (Donny) Varnell and Ray Troll—probably my favorite piece of art in any school in Kichx̱áan

Second, some people have suggested that because there are three different Indigenous nations with large populations in Ketchikan, giving the school a name in the language of only one of those nations would be unfair or not truly representative of our community.

Using the name Kichx̱áan Héeni for our main middle school is no different than Kichx̱áan or Ketchikan being the name of the community itself. Yes, many X̱aadas (Haida) and Tsmʼsyen (Tsimshian) live in Kichx̱áan, maybe even more than there are Lingít who live in the community. But, there is no doubt that Kichx̱áan is Lingít Aaní, and Lingít is the language that the place names on this land come from.

In fact, X̱aadas and Tsmʼsyen have repeatedly shown a great deal of respect for Lingít place names when they moved into areas that were previously part of Lingít Aaní. The names of the Haida communities of Gáwk’yaan (Howkan), Hlankwa’áan (Klinkwan), Ḵasaʼáan (Kasaan), and Saxk’wáan (Sukkwan) are all based on Lingít names, and the name Taquan is respectfully remembered and used by Tsmʼsyen as the former name, based on the Lingít, for the community of Metlakatla.

Besides, it is entirely possible to translate Kichx̱áan Héeni into X̱aad Kíl (Haida) and Smʼalgyax (Tsimshian), just as it would be to call it “Ketchikan Creek Middle School” in English. I don't happen to know what those X̱aad Kíl and Smʼalgyax translations would look like, but it would be entirely possible to make the name tri- or quadrilingual, if that's what the school and community want to display and promote.

Lastly, some people may feel uncomfortable with learning to pronounce a new name in a language they are unfamiliar with. I'm happy to report that pronouncing Kichx̱áan Héeni is quite easy: It only has one sound in it not found in English, represented by the letter X̱, which is a raspy H-like sound made in the back of the throat. If you'd like to hear my pronunciation of the name, listen to this recording.

Otherwise, if the way you pronounce the name just sounds like “Kich-haan hee-nee,” without the X̱ sound, that's ok! The most important thing about restoring and honoring a Lingít name is not that everyone will pronounce it perfectly: It's that we are showing respect to the original people of this land, reconnecting with our roots, and showing what we truly value about the history and heritage of our community.

I wish our community leaders had put more thought into the name they chose for our middle school in 1965. But, just because they didn't, it doesn't mean we can't do better now. Our 7th and 8th-graders don't need to go to a school named for a conman. They should be proud to go to a school with a name that reflects the deep history and heritage of the land they live on.

If you have other critcisms, concerns, or disagreements with me regarding the effort to change the name of Schoenbar Middle School to Kichx̱áan Héeni Middle School, please feel encouraged to leave a comment below.



Peter Stanton

I’m an Alaskan history teacher in Ketchikan writing a book on the Tlingit 19th century. I also write regularly about language, reading, travel, and politics.