Place Maps

Place Maps

Names of places, of camps and of lakes are all important to us, for that is the way we travel – with names…Most of the names you come across when travelling are very old. Our ancestors named them because that is where they traveled.”   

The Sea Ice is Our Highway: An Inuit Perspective on Transportation in the Arctic, by Dominique Tunglik, Pelly Bay, Nunavut. 

Do you and your friends give special, unique names and stories to places in your lives to acknowledge these places for adventure, living, and working? This article is intended for intuitive, creative people seeking ways to design and make things – craftspeople, designers, builders, technicians, architects, and engineers – by focusing on, and borrowing from, both natural patterns and human-made patterns to make our built environment.

The inland seas among islands in Southeast Alaska were home to prehistoric Tlingit natives. Looking in towards shore from canoes, Tlingit traveled the passages, but how did they know where they were, and where they were going?  Well, they knew the waters so well because there were names of hundreds of places along their canoe waterways where either storm waves had sunk canoes, wars took place, abandoned villages once stood, or good fishing and seal hunting were located. 

Yet, Tlingit had no maps nor written language to record and remember these place names. They relied on verbally repeating and remembering these places relative to one another by using mnemonic devices. They created place maps that everyone could remember. To remember place names and keep their place maps alive and fresh, mnemonic devices – historical legends, stories, carvings, and songs – helped by including place names as words or images. Those who had heard from childhood the legends and stories so often, also knew the place names and place maps embedded in them.

Seaworthy canoe transportation was important to Pacific Northwest Coast indigenous culture and survival. They carved magnificent dugout canoes, each from a single cedar tree (Figure 1). To reach good fishing or hunting areas, their canoes traveled long distances, safely navigated narrow channels where tidal currents run at 5 knots or more – too fast to paddle against. To ensure a band’s survival, natural patterns of the ocean – wind, tide, current, eddies, and waves – were well known and taught continually to the next generations through the same legends and stories.

How they navigated was very practical; they always had place maps in their minds. Memories of place names traveled with them as their guide. A band of seal hunters departing their village paddled along the coastline by recognizing sequential patterns of named places occurring along their journey. It was as if they were listening again to the legends, stories, and songs they had heard hundreds of times, and they instinctively knew the way. Memorialized in song and story, the places along the way were not forgotten.

Figure 1
Credits: Brian Glover

Starting in the late 1970’s, Tlingit elders generously shared their knowledge of place names, and a website was founded. The following tale from their website describes the whimsical process of personal knowledge sharing as they sought to preserve their cultural place names. But the anecdote also exposes great communal, culture and emotional attachment to these places, an attachment that brings stories, songs, and laughter to the heart of elder Charlie Joseph as he recounts the places and their names.  

“While pointing out and naming places around Sitka or on the project maps, Charlie named and identified old Tlingit villages, campsites, shorelines, islands, bays, etc. Often, Charlie was able to add which clans and individuals used these areas for putting up food and trapping or would break into a Tlingit song or traditional story, all captured and preserved by the Sitka Native Education Program. And Charlie would tell jokes . . . there is much laughter captured on the tapes of the project as well. In the end, Mr. Joseph shared nearly 400 traditional Tlingit names for geographic features within the Sheet’Ka Kwáan’s territory!”

For Charlie, place names and place-maps were clearly more than names of markers signifying a particular place; they had much more meaning than street signs and city names have for us.  Cultural information of survival and livelihood is contained within, and surrounds, the place names and place-maps. It is a pity that patterns of the Tlingit human connection with the Southeast Alaska land- and water-scape place maps has been altered forever due to re-naming by outsiders. The attempt to preserve the Tlingit’s remaining remnants of cultural place maps is commendable. It is somewhat akin to striving to preserve the world’s rainforests, since we have no idea of the possible benefits – medicines, foods, and technologies – inherent in them.

Thomas Thornton in Being and Place Among the Tlingit writes,

“The displacement of the Tlingit language by English in public and private discourse, has led to a loss of the rich and sensuous information content embedded in traditional linguistic domains, such as place-names.”

Stories and songs, remembered fondly by Charlie, harbored safely a collective Tlingit knowledge; the stories and songs, therefore, had profound cultural and technological value. A place name story may have moral content or commemorative, historical importance. A story may contain important information for skinning seals or navigating through a treacherous passage between islands where unseen eddies can occur at certain tides. 

Thornton calls the resulting indigenous survivalist technology, based on a knowledge of place  

“…cognitive technology…(and)…place intelligence.  Unfortunately, technology has too often been reduced to artifact, when it also involves artifice – place-based strategies and ways of knowing that endure despite the adoption of new material technologies.”

Tlingit place name maps (Figure 2) are available for view, and interactive audio maps from the Sitka Native Education Program are available at, entitled SHEET’KWAAN AANI AYA:  Sitka Area Native Place Names.  The website has audio of spoken Tlingit place names together with modern names for places in English if available. Translations of Tlingit place names are not given, and most may not be translatable. The modern English name for a place often has no intrinsic native meaning, and usually has no meaning relative to geographic (or other) features of the place. Although Charlie’s original recordings are available for those who know how to ask, few non-Tlingit website visitors, including myself, would request them since they would be unintelligible to us.

Without Charlie’s stories given with the place-names, there is less cultural meaning to places. There is a sense of great loss culturally for us all. Names alone lack any intelligence to the place, nor do they give a sense of the survival technology gained from Tlingit place intelligence. We non-Tlingit speakers are further removed from the places. Without language or cultural knowledge, Charlie’s spoken place names are empty of meaning.   

Figure 2 Maps on the Sitka Area Native Place Names Website
Credits: Sitka Native Education Program Website

Our Place Maps

Place maps are a pattern of place names that each one of us carries around with us. Most of us have them; many may not be aware of them. For instance, a place map can be a map in one’s mind of all the places one has traveled. Or it might be a map in the mind of one’s hometown neighborhood, with every special, little place named uniquely with a childhood memory. 

I can understand the place map concept if I map our own special place names where we hiked and fished along the Queets River in Olympic National Park in the last 30 years. Having backpacked and fished there at least twenty times, each place name tells a story (Figure 3). It is OUR place map – not only mine. A place map is most often owned by a group or culture. The culture familiar with our place map is comprised of four fishing friends and their families. Outside our little fishing “culture”, the place names are meaningless. Those outside the group will not recognize the river, or places along it, by our place names. So, that’s good, because the good fishing spots we have encoded through our place names stay secret.

The pattern of place names is navigational; they are in order along the river. Names, stories, events, and mental images of places tell our location on the river. New place names were often added with subsequent events from the trips. We fishers describe these places with our families, many of which they themselves have visited. If I said we caught 4 steelhead at “dead elk hole”, my son would know the place; outsiders would not. With a memory, an image, and a story or two, each name place is much more than a GPS point on a topographical map. 

Figure 3 Our Place Map on the Queets River
Credits: Brian Glover

A story, below, tells a story of a trip up the Queets, based on accounts from several trips.  Those in our group will understand and know these places where we backpacked, camped, and fished.

We forded the Queets early before glacial snowmelt raised the water level.  Cleared of downed trees, the “Gucci Trail” let us hike quickly to “Homestead Meadows”; dew-covered spider webs hung like fog on dried thistles there. We spent a couple hours fishing “Dead Elk Hole” before eating lunch.  After eating, we took the old trail down towards the ford leading to the “Old Cabin” beyond “The Grotto”.  But deciding not to cross the river to the Grotto, we hiked to “Mad Bull Camp” instead, fishing the north side of the river to “Wundar Bar”.  Two elk bulls in rut had once charged each other in the middle of Mad Bull Camp, making us dive behind a downed log for cover. A few miles above Wundar Bar, we pitched our tent at “Windy Gap”, a windy gravel bar free of pesky mosquitos.

The next day we hiked to newly named “Camp No Coffee”, where we once boiled camp coffee since we had nothing else; it was terrible. We fished downstream to where I previously caught my “1st Dryfly Steelhead” and fished upstream the next day to where we saw many “Spawning Kings”, their redds marked with ribbon by Park Service fish biologists helicoptered upriver the day before. We bushwhacked past trail’s end at Pelton Creek, stopping briefly at “Vallehalla Bend” – a helicopter landing spot where hikers first glimpse snow on the Vallehalla ridge peaks. We crossed the river to set up camp at “Cougar Camp”.  Appropriately named, we always keep a fire burning all night there.

Up early, we traversed the rugged “Deaf Bear Trail”, an unmarked, old game trail over a ridge leading to the upper river “Above the Falls”.  A black bear charged us here once; it was probably hard of hearing. But when it could smell us, it quickly turned from us and shot up the hill away from us, reminding us that we could never, ever outrun a bear. After fishing above the falls, we returned to camp on the Deaf Bear Trail, noticing cougar tracks all around, going each way along the trail. Unsurprisingly, we had been stalked upriver. I hope to never encounter one up close, but we always stay together near the Falls.

Next morning, we started our long, one day trek out to the trailhead. We fished downriver from “Big Tree Camp”, where gorgeous stands of Sitka Spruce line the river’s south bank, and “Skinny Dippin’ Camp”, where summer sun warms the water. Fishing was great, and we did not want to leave. But the sun went behind the ridge, so we quickly hiked to the ford, tired and sweaty, downstream of “Homestead Meadows” at dusk.

When I tell others about catching a steelhead at “Windy Gap”, few know where that is, unless they are in our group. With these place names we can share these old stories, lies, exaggerations, and boasting again and again of the Queets. Sadly, I doubt the stories, which are mostly based on fact, and place names will outlive us for long.

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