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  • Haa Leelk’w Has Aani Saax’u / Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land Edited by Thomas F. Thornton
  • Gwilym Eades
Haa Leelk’w Has Aani Saax’u / Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land / Edited by Thomas F. Thornton. Seattle: University of Washington Press in association with Sealaska Heritage Institute, 2012. Pp. 256; 60 illus., maps; 8.5 × 11″. ISBN 9780295988580 (paper), US$30.00; ISBN 9780295992174 (cloth), US$70.00. Available from

This atlas represents the culmination of more than 20 years’ effort and work by its editor, Thomas Thornton, whose research throughout his career has focused on south-eastern Alaskan indigenous groups. Those already familiar with Thornton’s work will most likely have read Being and Place among the Tlingit, already a classic in the fields of indigenous place-name studies, anthropology, and philosophical aspects of place. Haa Léelk’w Hás Aaní Saax’ú / Our Grandparents Names on the Land both supplements and continues that work.

The introduction to this book acts as a road map for navigating Tlingit place-name pronunciations and understanding indigenous place-naming systems more generally. But while the introduction is admirably succinct and comprehensive with respect to both Tlingit naming systems specifically and cultural and linguistic aspects of indigenous place names more generally, it is not the most interesting part of this book. Most impressive is the way in which multiple representations of places are woven into a set of narratives based around different areas in and around south-eastern Alaska, including gazetteers of place names, maps, stories, drawings, photos, and oral histories. The maps are high-contrast hillshade-style representations of terrain that will be familiar to GIS technicians using Spatial Analyst. Context is provided mainly in the form of familiar place names that accompany each map. For the English speaker, these are primarily the names of bays, mountains, or other non-indigenous names, and are few in number compared to the profusion of indigenous names in the same areas.

By comparison, the indigenous place names are dense, clustering around areas of intense cultural activity and hunting. Mythical and spiritual named places are abundant, in contrast to the relative lack of emphasis on these aspects in English toponyms. The focus on journeying is also apparent in Tlingit, as noted in a table that breaks down, by percentage, categories of naming in both Tlingit and English (p. 35). Hydrographic features are by far the most abundant kind of semantic referent in Tlingit, while [End Page 77] English naming tends to focus more on the biographical. The well-known fixation of English place names on pioneers, explorers, and elites is evident in a variety of names honouring Euro-American figures in local topographies.

Each of the 11 regional sections of this book includes boxes or separate sections that highlight stories provided by key informants, usually elders. For example, a story called “Returning Home: The Odyssey of the Kaach.ádi” (p. 128) contains 36 named geographic referents forming a spine along which the narrative is guided. The narrative reads almost like a creation myth, but it is factual, tracing with the aid of a map the path of the storyteller’s ancestors: Johnny Jackson tells of the “big flood” that forced his ancestors to move inland and how, with the receding of the flood, there was a strong urge to reclaim former homes along the coast. The return migration involved ancestral movement across the land to areas well known for providing shelter or suitable conditions for harvesting, gathering, and processing food.

Intergenerational aspects of place-names come to the fore as, repeatedly, stories associated with various clans form in abundance around various clan activities. The result is a differentiation of the landscape around those clans, each of which trace their lineage, through place-based narratives, back to the time of the big flood mentioned by Johnny Jackson and other elders. But place names recounted in this way are useful beyond compiling a record of historical occupancy. They also trace physical changes in the land itself. Thornton notes that “Sitkoh Bay is an excellent example of how Tlingit place names serve as linguistic artefacts on the land, providing important...


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pp. 77-78
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