The hill where the University of Alaska Fairbanks sits is again being recognized by its Athabascan name, and a Native elder is calling it an important first step toward restoring many Athabascan place names around Fairbanks.
You may know it as College Hill, and the far end of it as The West Ridge. But 85-year-old Robert Charlie will be glad to help you get to know the official name for the bit of elevated terrain on which the UAF campus stands: “Troth Yeddha.”
Charlie says the recent decision by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names to formally designate the hill as Troth Yeddha was historic, because recognizing the name that the Lower Tanana Athabascan people have long used for the hill affirms this place as their homeland.
“We were the people (who) were here first,” he said. “And so I’m trying to open people’s eyes about you’re on Indian land – that, when you’re walking on the university hill here, you’re stepping on our ancestors’ footprints.”
The soft-spoken, self-taught consultant to the UAF’s Alaska Native Language Center has been working for years with help from his father, Moses Charlie, and other elders to catalogue some 4,000 Athabascan place names through the Minto area, where he was born and grew up.
Charlie worked with a handful of UAF faculty and staff to gain support from the university leadership for the indigenous place name and creation of a park of the same name on campus.
He says the federal Place Names Board’s recognition of Troth Yeddha is an important victory in Alaska Natives’ ongoing struggle to preserve their culture – in this case, not only through the place name and the term for the wild tuber that indigenous people have long harvested in this area, but also the subsistence lifestyle that is central to their culture.
“Troth is sweet potato,” Charlie said, “and our people used to stop by here, and they would pick troth while they were here. Salcha people, Chena people, Nenana people, Minto people would all come here for that purpose.”
Gary Holton, a native-language expert and director of the Alaska Native Language Archive who works with Charlie, says the formal recognition of Troth Yeddha is a breakthrough that may pave the way for recognition of many other indigenous place names around Fairbanks and elsewhere in Alaska.
“There’s a lot of interest,” Holton said. “We’ve already over the last couple of years been working with the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, and there’s interest in being able to put these names on the next release of topographic maps.
“So, this is where things are headed, to recognize those names that have been around on the land for centuries.”