For some the question is why the latest gifting of an Alaska Native name to a Juneau school isn’t a union of the existing and new names, as has happened previously. For others the answer is bidding farewell to the existing name of a school suffering troublesome times recently means the new name can help make a fresh start.
Whatever the reason(s), it seems likely Riverbend Elementary School will soon be known as Kaxdigoowú Héen Elementary School since there was considerable enthusiasm and no opposition during an initial presentation Tuesday night to the Juneau Board of Education. The renaming is scheduled for final consideration by the board at its regular meeting May 10.
The ancient Tlingit A’akw name for the location honors the strength and resilience of Tlingit people who set fish traps in the strong current of Mendenhall River, according to advocates and a video presented to the board. Part of the motivation for reestablishing the name came from the river pushing through the natural “bend” alongside the school in 2018.
“As the mighty river has determined a new course, we too would like to carve our own path towards a future that acknowledges the rich history of this place and our connection to it,” said Fran Houston, cultural Leader of the A’akw Kwáan, during an introduction of the 10-minute video showing students learning about the significance of the name — and trying along with teachers to pronounce it with not always perfect success.
In subsequent comments to the board, Houston said she was first contacted many months ago about the school possibly seeking a Lingít-language name and “I talked it over with the family members and they were all tickled pink.” The A’akw Kwáan met and unanimously decided the name, Kax̱ digoowú Héen, which translates in English to “going back to clear water” be gifted to the school.
“It is an old, old name and it is so nice to bring it back to life,” Houston said. “What great joy it is to hear the children say the name. They say it a lot better than I do.”
Board members speaking about the proposal all expressed support, although Brian Holst, the board’s vice president, asked why the proposal doesn’t seek to combine the current and gifted names as happened with other schools, such as Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé.
“Is it necessary, or why would you want to eliminate the current name and not do what we did with other schools?” he asked.
Riverbend Principal Elizabeth Pisel-Davis said it’s essential to bring the traditional names back to life and “we see it not as eliminating a name, but reclaiming the name that was already here.”
“We feel this is the most appropriate way to honor the meaning and the magnitude of the gift given to our students and families,” she said. “This is also part of our role as educators and people who live on Tlingit land to help revitalize the language.”
Emil Mackey, the board’s clerk, said his only hesitation “is by dropping the English pronuncian we get away from the philosophy of integration,” but feedback he’s seen to the proposal is motivation to support the change. Some speaking during the meeting and in prior public comments noted the school has suffered problems lately such as a burst pipe in January that caused extensive structural damage forcing the temporary closure of the school — with further repairs still scheduled this summer — and destroying books and other valued items.
“One of the letters that meant something to me is Riverbend has been plagued by a lot of issues and this would be a fresh start for Riverbend,” Mackey said. “With the immense work we’re putting into Riverbend school I really believe renaming the school is good for the entire community.”
Bob Sam, a Tlingit storyteller and cemetery caretaker featured on the renaming video, said the historic name’s fish trap origins are an appropriate allegory for the school.
“The fish net will be a safety net to wrap around the students, and make them feel safe when they come into the school and until they graduate from the school,” he said.
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at Mark.Sabbatini@juneauempire.com.