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Anchorage's popular Powerline Pass difficult to rename in Dena’ina

Rick Sinnott
Loren Holmes photo

When Juliet asked Romeo, “What’s in a name?” she unleashed an archetypal tragedy that culminated in their deaths.

Names are imbued with personal, spiritual, and cultural identity. Personal names have long been sources of power in ritual, folklore, and fantasy. Some cultures assign private and public names; revealing your private name might give an adversary too much power. In medieval Iceland, giving a person a derogatory nickname, one intended to anger, or repeating such a nickname was punishable by three years in exile.

So it was with some trepidation that the Chugach State Park Citizens Advisory Board recently considered renaming a well-known landmark in the park: Powerline Pass.

Grabbing a live wire

Judy Caminer, the advisory board’s chair, and her husband, Roger, often hike in the vicinity. She believed the name of the pass seemed a little incongruous in a park setting and went looking for a Dena’ina name to replace it.

The problem is, no one now living knows whether the pass ever had a Dena’ina name. If it did, it’s long forgotten.

Caminer contacted Eklutna, Inc., and asked them to recommend a more traditional name. They polled some elders and notified Aaron Leggett, a special exhibits curator with the Anchorage Museum. Leggett suggested several descriptive names that elders were comfortable with: nungge (uplands away from), betnu (creek), and tustes (pass). Leggett suggested the terms be combined as Nungge Betnu Tustes.

This name doesn’t trip lightly off the tongue. However, Leggett observed, neither does South Fork of Campbell Creek.

The park advisory board’s discussions raised several additional concerns. When something is named, someone has a vested interest in preserving the name. Who named the pass after the powerline? Is it presumptuous to invent a Native name for a geographic feature with a familiar English name? Would the public support renaming Powerline Pass? How does one initiate the process?

There’s an official procedure for naming geographic features. An application must be sent to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names. Among other things, the application form asks you to identify supporters and any local conflicts with, or opposition to, the proposed name. It’s not easy to rename a mountain pass.

Early last summer, the advisory board decided to broach the subject with several community groups on the Hillside and discuss the idea with the Mountaineering Club of Alaska, whose members named many of the peaks and other features in the park.

Powerline Pass

Before a wagon road and railroad were built along the north shore of Turnagain Arm, the pass that connects the South Fork of Campbell Creek with the Indian River provided an easier alternative to bushwhacking across the steep mountainsides that border the inlet. A map drawn in 1910 by D.H. Sleem, a Seward doctor, shows a trail going up Indian Creek and hanging a sharp left through a feature labeled “Low Pass.”

Whether this was the name of the pass or an annotation is unknown. It seems likely to have been the former, but even descriptive notes on maps have become official names. Oddly enough for such a prosaic name, Alaska has no other pass named Low Pass. But the name didn’t stick.

A half century later, in the late 1950s, the Chugach Electric Association surveyed a route for a transmission line from the Cooper Lake dam on the Kenai Peninsula to Anchorage. By late 1961 the section through the “Low Pass” was completed.

With a file of tall wooden towers standing at attention in the gap, picking a new name for the pass was as easy as flipping a light switch. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Board on Geographic Names, the name Powerline Pass was submitted in 1966 by Vin Hoeman, the chairman of the Mountaineering Club of Alaska’s committee on geographic names. Hoeman claimed it was the local name in use because “a major powerline crosses the pass and many people follow it.” He also reported the name was in use by the military since at least 1961.

Hoeman was uniquely positioned to name the pass. A soldier stationed at Fort Richardson in the early 1960s, he was also a world-class mountain climber and a leader of the mountaineering club that named many of the peaks on the skyline of the Anchorage Bowl in the 1960s.

Exploring other options

The primary resource for Dena’ina place names in upper Cook Inlet is Shem Pete’s Alaska by James Kari and James Fall. Shem Pete was a remarkable Dena’ina storyteller who lived from about 1900 to 1989. According to Kari, he had traveled most of the region draining into upper Cook Inlet, more than 13,800 square miles, by foot and boat.

Kari and Fall were consulted about the new name for the pass. Perhaps surprisingly, Kari, a linguist with the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who specializes in Athabascan languages like Dena’ina, doesn’t “see any special need to change an official name to make a spot for a Dena'ina place name.” Kari had other concerns that I’ll get to later.

Fall is willing to entertain the possibility; however, he muddied the waters by suggesting an alternative. First he noted that Kari and he had elicited no Dena’ina names for the pass or the South Fork of Campbell Creek that leads to the pass. That doesn’t mean there weren’t names; it probably means that Shem Pete and other Native elders weren’t familiar with or couldn’t recall them.

Fall suggested considering Qin Cheghi Tustes or Qin Cheghitnu Tustes. Qin Cheghi, or “Crying Ridge,” is the Dena’ina name for the prominent ridgeline lying north of the North Fork of Campbell Creek. Qin Cheghitnu, or “Crying Ridge Creek,” is the Dena’ina name for Campbell Creek, including its north fork. Fall observed that if renaming Powerline Pass was intended to honor the Dena’ina, the use of Qin Cheghi was appropriate as it refers to remembrance of things past. However, he also acknowledged that the term would naturally lead one familiar with local Dena’ina place names to assume that the pass was at the head of the North Fork of Campbell Creek, some four miles north of Powerline Pass.

I raised another possibility. Geographically, the closest documented Dena’ina place name to Powerline Pass is Ułchena Tich’qiluqt, “Where We Killed Alutiiq People.” This was a battle site supposedly on a mountain whose exact location is unknown. It might have been Suicide Peak, according to Shem Pete’s Alaska. There are two Suicide Peaks; the northernmost peak is about a mile from Powerline Pass. The Alutiiq living in Prince William Sound occasionally hauled boats over Portage Pass to attack the Dena’ina living around Knik Arm. Powerline Pass would have provided an alternative route into the area for raiding parties. It would have also provided an excellent site for an ambush. If Alutiiq were killed on or near Suicide Peak, it may be because they were trying to get back to their boats in Turnagain Arm via Powerline Pass.

Call it a working hypothesis, but naming the pass “Where We Killed the Alutiiq People” seems to be more geographically accurate than “Crying Ridge Creek Pass.” Using a sports analogy, the Dena’ina are the local team in upper Cook Inlet and they trounced the rival team from Prince William Sound. Yea, team! But I got the impression that Fall doesn’t support my hypothesis.

Slippery slopes

Caminer and other board members discussed renaming Powerline Pass with the Home and Landowner’s Association for the Anchorage Hillside, the Turnagain Arm community council, and the Mountaineering Club of Alaska. They heard general agreement for creating a Dena’ina name for Powerline Pass within the neighboring communities.

The Mountaineering Club of Alaska may be the organization with the most vested interest, having named the pass in 1966. Steve Gruhn, the chairman of the club’s geographic names committee, doesn’t support changing the name because it is officially recognized, it has longstanding use, and no one knows an aboriginal name for the pass. The MCA doesn’t even support giving the pass an alternative name.

Ironically, the MCA named some of the best-known peaks on the Anchorage skyline for the same reason Caminer proposed for renaming Powerline Pass.

In 1965 Rodman Wilson convinced the MCA to use Dena’ina words to name five peaks overlooking the North Fork of Campbell Creek because he “wanted names that reflected the culture of the Cook Inlet basin’s aboriginal inhabitants.” Tanaina Peak was based on an accepted spelling for Dena’ina at the time. Wilson or others consulted with Mike Alex, the chief of Eklutna, apparently asking for the Dena’ina names of four local wild animals. Kanchee (Porcupine) Point, Knoya (Beaver) Point, Tikishla (Black Bear) Peak, and Koktoya (Moose) Peak are all prominent, well-known landmarks today.  But none of them are the original Dena’ina names, which have all been lost if they ever existed.

Unlike the Montagues and Capulets, no one seems to be willing to start a feud over this issue.  No one is pushing hard to rename the pass. Even those advocating a Dena’ina name for Powerline Pass recognize that fashioning a new Dena’ina name doesn’t have the same appeal as restoring an original Dena’ina name.  

Best I can tell, nearly everyone involved seems happy to let the public decide on an alternative name for Powerline Pass.

Treading lightly

The park’s advisory board attempted to negotiate these slippery slopes with a compromise. The official park map published by Imus Geographics already includes Dena’ina place names. Some of these are officially recognized by the U.S. Board of Geographical Names. Others, enclosed in parentheses beside the official names, were provided by Chugach State Park staff, presumably from Shem Pete’s Alaska. Rather than officially renaming the pass, the board decided to create an alternative name, one that would reflect a time before transmission lines.

The board asked Tom Harrison, the park superintendent, to ask Imus Geographics if it’s possible to include a Dena’ina name for Powerline Pass, in parentheses, the next time the map is updated. Harrison was also asked to design a sign explaining the alternative name and the area’s history. The map and sign will clearly acknowledge that this is not a traditional Dena’ina place name.

Kari complained that some of the Dena’ina names on the map are spelled wrong, and not all the traditional place names in Shem Pete’s Alaska have been added to local features. They are also applied inconsistently. Kanchee and Knoya points and Tikishla and Koktoya peaks are modern appellations; if the correct Dena’ina spelling is included in parentheses under the official names the map should indicate that they are not traditional names.

Imus Geographics is planning to update the park map in approximately two years, when the current inventory runs low. Kari has offered his assistance in editing Dena’ina place names already on the map.

Now all we need is an alternative name for the pass that is acceptable to the public.

The Dena’ina named many geographic features for their most obvious physical characteristic. Out of curiosity, I asked Fall what a literal translation of Powerline Pass might be. He told me the word “power” in a religious sense is k’teya, literally “its power” or “its strength.” Considering what happens when the electrical grid goes down in Anchorage, I’ll go with the spiritual sense of the word. A rope or string is ts’ił. If we could ask Shem Pete for directions to K’teya Ts’ił Tustes, I bet he’d smile and point to the headwaters of the South Fork of Campbell Creek.

Once again, Fall urged caution. Stringing nouns together to compose a place name in Dena’ina, he says, “is better left to the experts.”

The park advisory board, still undecided on a name, plans to continue consulting with experts and the public. This is not a drama any of the protagonists are willing to die for.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at  rickjsinnott@gmail.com