National Wildlife Refuge System
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along the Kanuti River
Fall colors are spectacular along the Kanuti River, called Kk’oonootne in Koyukon Athabascan.
Credit: Bill Raften, USFWS

In Alaska, Native Instincts

A long–dormant effort to document hundreds of native Alaskan place names and their derivation on the Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge in central Alaska sprang back to life recently with the publication of a 54–page color atlas, “Middle Koyukuk River of Alaska—An Atlas of Fishing Places and Traditional Place Names.” The book draws on interviews with native elders that were recorded in the mid–1980s by refuge information technician and Allakaket elder Johnson Moses and linguist and elder Eliza Jones.

In the interviews, elders recounted the stories behind traditional Native place names near the villages of Hughes, Allakaket, Alatna, Bettles and Evansville in the Koyukuk River drainage. University of Alaska researcher Wendy Arundale recorded the information in an unpublished report, where it lay largely forgotten for 20 years.

The report may have remained unnoticed had Kanuti Refuge staff not decided to include traditional place names in their revised Comprehensive Conservation Plan. Kanuti Refuge planner Deborah Webb painstakingly entered the details into a computerized system to ensure accurate depiction of lettering unique to the Koyukon language and correct pronunciation. Then, the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association (YRDFA) added the information to its comprehensive atlas of place names.

“We had a keen interest in resurrecting the project,” says refuge manager Mike Spindler. “We’re really working now with the last generation of people able to speak the Koyukon language fluently and who know the stories behind the names. I felt it was important to fully document the cultural history behind place names on the refuge. This is our last opportunity to record the place names with the people, who are in their 80s and 90s.”

According to the atlas, the refuge’s Kanuti River takes its name from the Koyukon Athabascan name “Kk’oonootne,” meaning “well–traveled river by both man and animals.” Another possible meaning is “fish roe river.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided $12,000 of the $34,000 project cost; additional support came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and the Lannan Foundation, which supports artists, writers and activists in rural indigenous communities. Copies of the atlas are available from YRDFA by calling 1–877–99–YUKON (98566).

For more information:

For more information on the refuge: or 907–456–0329.

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