When Aaron Leggett was growing up in Anchorage, he says there was almost nothing that recognized the region’s original Dena’ina inhabitants except one sign on the corner of F and 3rd streets in downtown. “I made it my job to let people know…let’s never forget the original inhabitants of this area,” Leggett says.
Leggett now works as a curator at the Anchorage Museum and is the president and chair of the Native Village of Eklutna. For the past 15 years, he has championed the importance of having Dena’ina names, stories, and land recognition statements within Anchorage. The first big success and a turning point, Leggett says, came when the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center opened in 2008. He’s since worked on numerous projects that recognize the region’s indigenous people.
Around 2017, Beth Nordlund of the Anchorage Park Foundation approached him about working on a large, coordinated effort to include Dena’ina place name signage across the city. Organizations including the Anchorage Museum, First Alaskans Institute, Alaska Native Heritage Center, and others convened and developed what became the Indigenous Place Names Project. The group solidified core ideals for the project, including the need for well-built signage that represented the area’s original inhabitants. These core elements, Leggett says, can be adopted by other communities around Alaska and the country.
In August 2021, a celebration was held to recognize the first two signs built as part of the project. One sign is located at Chanshtnu Muldoon Park in East Anchorage and the other is at Westchester Lagoon. Athabascan and Paiute artist Melissa Shaginoff designed a metal sculpture to wrap around the wooden signposts that represents a fire bag, a leather pouch Dena’ina would carry with them to hold fire starting materials.
The two signs are the first of 30 locations around Anchorage where the Indigenous Place Names Project plans to put signs.