For more than 75 years, numerous Athabascan experts from the Tanana Valley, such as Moses Charlie, Peter John, Howard Luke and Evelyn Alexander, have proudly shared the place name for the ridge that underlies the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.
Troth Yeddha’, or “Indian potato ridge,” refers to Hedysarum alpinum, a plant with an edible root that is commonly found in Alaska stream beds. This is the only indigenous vegetable with food value for Alaska’s Athabascan people.
Peter John saw these facts being interconnected: An ancient Athabascan name for this ridge, “troth” is an important food plant and the location of Alaska’s first university.
Robert Charlie, of Minto, has been lecturing about the place name Troth Yeddha’. Last year, Robert suggested that we propose to name the ridge with the Athabascan name.
Robert, Annette Freiburger and I took the name proposal to three university committees, each of which gave its unanimous support, as did UA President Patrick Gambell and UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers. The name proposal will appear on the agenda at the next meeting of the Alaska State Board of Geographic Names (October-November).
This has been an eventful process. At times the proposal has been mischaracterized. The website of Alaska Native Language Center has factual information on the Lower Tanana place name (See www.uaf.edu/anlc/troth/).
We can define some terms and summarize the main points.
Geographic names in the United States are maintained by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names in the Geographic Names Information System. Names for streets, buildings, parks and subdivisions are not in the GNIS.
The ridge at UAF has no official place name. The commonly used names “College Hill” and “West Ridge” are unofficial names for sections of the campus. Those names will not be changed or replaced.
All official Athabascan-origin place names in the Fairbanks area date from 1905 to 1915 (e.g. Chena, Tolovana, Nenana, Salcha).
Laura Anderson, the last Chena speaker, in 1956 described troth harvesting with her mother in the area of Troth Yeddha’ (in “According to Mama,” reprinted in 2011 by St. Matthews Episcopal Church).
In 1967, the place name was written down for first time by UAF Professor Michael Krauss working with Moses Charlie. The name was first published in 1974.
About 12,000 place names have been recorded in Alaska Athabascan languages. There is considerable evidence for the antiquity of Athabascan names for major features. The same names are used across language areas for mutually known features. Place names are functional and constantly informative. Shared geographic knowledge has promoted name memorization, name retention, travel and land tenure.
There is nothing controversial about Troth Yeddha’. The name has multilingual confirmation from more than 20 speakers. No Athabascan person has ever reported a meaning for the name other than “potato ridge.”
In 2001, Hester Evan, who was born in 1906 at Toklat, told a 32-minute story of a raid on a small village at Tso-Teya, which means “Indian Potato Hill” in her dialect. This took place in about 1843. There were casualties, and there were three survivors. In 1991, Peter John made a brief reference to this same incident.
The name Troth Yeddha’ has appeared on brochures, posters and maps. An article on the name has been in the UAF catalogue since 2002. In 2008, the University of Alaska Board of Regents endorsed a space for Troth Yeddha’ Park at the seven-acre open space east of the UA Museum of the North. On Saturday, the inaugural “Troth Yeddha’ Run for the Park” 5-kilometer run was held.
This month, “Lower Tanana Athabascan Place Names” will be published, containing more than 1,080 names with three maps. Included are all names on record for the Chena dialect, at the eastern edge of the Lower Tanana place name network.
There are more than 20 features with Athabascan place names in the south vista from Troth Yeddha’. We have reconstructed a set of 11 place names in the UAF area that are based on the word “troth.”
Official recognition of the name reinforces core themes of the University of Alaska. Robert Charlie has written “the name Troth Yeddha’ will recapture the ancient view.” The name Troth Yeddha’ invites inquiry.
Jim Kari is professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he is associated with the Alaska Native Language Center.