Up the Koyukuk River with Youth and Elders

As we sat around the wood stove, crammed in a small cabin on the bank of 3-day slough off the Koyukuk River, Koyukon Elders Benedict Jones, George Yaska Sr., and Bill Derendoff with youth from their communities at their feet, told story after story of their younger days growing up in the very places we were to visit. The rain poured down outside the cabin, ensuring the youth would not be interested in leaving the cabin. Instead the youth operated the recording equipment and held the microphone as Elders told stories until late into the evening. The stories were significant for the youth because their histories were featured in the stories as their grandparents used to live year-round at these very places.

We were traveling along the Koyukuk river by boat to document Alaska Native place names as part of the ongoing “Traditional Koyukon Athabascan place name: Hughes to Koyukuk” project. The boat trip was inspired by an Elder during the project’s first visit to Huslia in 2011 to collect and map place names and the stories that go with them. This Elder lamented about how talking about these place names made her want to return to them, something she hadn’t done for many years. From June 10-15, 2014 the project team along with Elders, youth, and scientists embarked on the boat trip as a way to connect youth and Elders from the Koyukuk River communities of Koyukuk, Huslia and Hughes while at the same time continuing to collect place names, posting signs at the sites, and reaching the community of Hughes where we had not yet held a community meeting or gathered additional place names for the project.

This project builds on original work begun by Eliza Jones, Koyukon language expert and Elder from Koyukuk. The project team is made up of a diverse group of collaborators including the communities of Koyukuk, Huslia, and Hughes, the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association, the Yukon-Koyukuk School District, the Koyukuk National Wildlife Refuge, and the United States Geological Survey, Alaska Science Center (USGS). Phase one of the project involved reviewing previously documented place names and fieldwork from Huslia and Koyukuk in 2011.

The current phase of the project is focused on holding community meetings in Koyukuk and Huslia to finalize the place name maps and to receive community feedback on final product ideas. Additionally, during this phase the project team is collecting place names and stories for the Hughes area and plans to return to Hughes during the coming year to interview more Elders, present a draft map and hold another community meeting. The next phase of the project will be to produce a final product highlighting the finalized list of place names along the Koyukuk River from Huslia to Hughes so they can be archived and shared with future generations. Some ideas for final products include incorporating place names into USGS topographic maps, an atlas type book with stories and photos describing the history of the place names area, and an interactive spoken language-based website.

Accomplishments so far through this project include collecting 675 place names, 366 place name locations and locating six previously undocumented old and current winter trail systems. Additionally, we interviewed nine Elders in Huslia, three Elders in Koyukuk and two Elders in Hughes and collected video and voice recordings of place name stories, meanings, and pronunciations.

This project would not have been possible without the broad support of our many sponsors which include the Traditional Knowledge Holders and Tribal Councils of Koyukuk, Huslia, and Hughes; the Alaska Humanities Forum; the National Endowment for the Arts; the USGS – Alaska Science Center, Yukon-Koyukuk School District, the Koyukuk National Wildlife Refuge (United States Fish and Wildlife Service); Doyon, Ltd.; and Gana-A’ Yoo, Ltd.

Project contact: Catherine Moncrieff, YRDFA. Catherine@yukonsalmon.org



















Figure 1. A subsection of the final Koyukon place names map focuses on the Huslia area. (Source: USGS Sarah McCloskey)




McCloskey, Sarah. 2014. Mapping Traditional place names along the Koyukuk River- Koyukuk to Hughes. USGS.


Paskvan, Susan. 2014. Elders, youths, scientists travel to document Native places, languages. Fairbanks Daily Miner: Local News.

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