Alaska would be a poorer place without Bulchitna Lake


I hope the Alaska Historical Commission sticks with Bulchitna Lake and rejects a proposal to start calling it Hneh'itnu Bena Lake. The existing name is important for historical reasons and it has literary merit.

It's also important because the people who live in the region know about Bulchitna Lake, but they do not know about Hneh'itnu Bena Lake.

Veteran Alaska linguist Jim Kari has proposed the change, citing a quote in his book "Shem Pete's Alaska," in which Billy Pete relayed the origins of the name of Bulchitna, a small lake 9 miles southeast of Skwenta and 59 miles north of Tyonek.

"Bulchitna. Somebody named Charley Nelson, a Swede, he died around 1934 or 1936. He used to stay right at McDougall for about 40 years. He found that lake and said, 'Oh, bullshit' and that's the name of it," Pete said.

Kari, who is retired from the University of Alaska Fairbanks,  told the historical commission that he thinks someone passed this along to a USGS topographer in the early 1950s and that Donald Orth, who compiled the Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, picked up on it.  Orth wrote that Bulchitna was a "local name published in 1954 by USGS." The lake is about 30 miles northwest of Willow.

The Bulchitna paperwork says that Kari contends "the name is derogatory—using the colloquial English 'bull shitting ya' and giving the appearance of a Native place name."

In Shem Pete's Alaska, he says it was a "completely bogus name." Kari provided an audio file to the historical commission in which he pronounces the proposed traditional name. I listened to the recording several times, but I can't pronounce it or create a phonetic version. The name means the "upland one" and Kari told the state he believes his proposal is in keeping with how the Dena'ina people named places. 

I don't agree that Bulchitna is derogatory. It is colorful. I'm also not sure it is bogus. The creation story sounds like something an Old Swede could have applied to a local landmark, a term that could have been in local use in 1954. The lake is about a  half-mile wide and a mile long.

The commission is to meet Wednesday and one item on its agenda is to change Bulchitna to Hneh'itnu Bena Lake and change Lake Creek nearby to Hneh'itnu Creek.

The written public comments ran 42-4 against the proposals, with people citing public safety, a tradition of local use, an inability to pronounce the new names and the likelihood that even with an official change the lake would be called Bulchitna and the creek would be called Lake Creek.

"The name means something to the local community," said Jon Wagner, who grew up on Bulchitna.

Bulchitna also has a place in the history of the capital move.  After Alaskans voted to move the capital in 1974 to almost anywhere except Anchorage or Fairbanks, the Capital Site Selection Committee looked at Bulchitna Lake, which would have been the greatest name in capital history.

During the effort to find a capital site, New Yorker writer John McPhee traveled in a helicopter with members of the site selection committee. He wrote of landing for fuel at Skwenta where pilot Bill Brandt had a cache of 55-gallon drums. McPhee watched as Brandt pumped fuel by hand into the chopper and when he grew tired, Willie Hensley, a Native leader and member of the committee, finished the chore.

"In the air again, we flew southeast and soon over Bulchitna Lake, a capital-site possibility, its water so clear that we could see, in places, its white sand bottom, and blue-green fathoms where the sand was below the reach of light," McPhee wrote in "Coming Into the Country."

"Is that Bulchitna?" said Arliss Sturgulewski. (Another capital site committee member and future legislator.)

"Bulchitna, Alaska," said Willie Hensley. "I propose that as the name of the capital."

But it was not to be.

The helicopter didn't stop at the lake and the committee moved on. Architect C.B. Bettisworth said the terrain was too flat, Realtor Earl Cook agreed and they had other ideas, including a site near Willow, with a waterway called Deception Creek. 

The capital never moved, but that would have been the second best name in capital history.

Dermot ColeComment