A project on reconsidering place and navigation
In 2019 I was invited to propose a design concept for marking indigenous place names in the traditional territory of my tribe, Niqnalchint (or the Ninilchik Village Tribe) which consists of the southern Sterling Highway portion of Alaska's Kenai Peninsula and parts of the eastern slopes of the Alaska Range. This project is part of an initiative started by the Bunnell Street Arts Center on recognizing indigenous arts and culture through the vehicles of land acknowledgement and equity in recognition.
This design began with the goal of addressing the name "Tuggeht", the indigenous Dena'ina language name for the region which is now home to the City of Homer, Kachemak City, and its surrounding coastal bluff neighborhoods. As this design came together I soon realized that what is needed in the discussion of land acknowledgement is the context of the knowledge in which place names are used and venerated. Place names are not easily interchangeable between languages, especially between languages which experienced the height of their use in different periods of time when cultures thought of geography, navigation, and even time itself in different lenses. To give the name Tuggeht a fitting representation of what it means in terms of indigenous thought I expanded the scope of what this marker should signify.
By combining academic (linguistic, anthropological, institutional) and cultural (familial, tribal) knowledge bases I devised a directional system based on traditional navigating terms and local knowledge of the peninsula and its terrain and history. It is this system that my proposed landmark has embedded in its design. The shape, meant to represent traditional stone trail markers, incorporates information on its coordinates using this system relative to "Tuyan". This name is another term for the Ninilchik Dome; a large solitary hill in the peninsula's Caribou Hills range that has been used as prominent vantage point of reference for generations. From here five directions extend out *from* Tuyan, unlike our traditional four directional compass, and location and navigation are calculated using coordinates that are always relative to this central high point. The word Tuyan itself is also used in Dena'ina as a suffix, like -tuyan or -tuyana., to denote the directional course of rivers in place names. Because these directional terms are also based on prominent water systems (Yunch' for example is the direction of the large Deep Creek River system), the name Tuyan is a fitting honorific for even this large hill. Tuyanitun itself means "trail from Tuyan".
In using this process the marker for Tuggeht has a presence that not only shares the area's traditional namesake, but it also honors the wealth of local knowledge passed down through history to create this re-imagining of our places in the world and how we are situated relative to it. This marker, and any future markers that can be created based on its system, are beginnings as much as they are destinations.
Original Tuyanitun design proposal