Linking maps, manuscripts, and place names data to improve environmental knowledge in Alaska

This NSF-funded project compiles a geographic database linking place name data found on historic Alaskan maps, manuscripts, and within oral histories and printed materials. The project builds on the existing, proven infrastructure of the Exchange for Local Observations of and Knowledge of the Arctic (ELOKA) project to create a sustainable platform accessible to both current and future researchers and community members. A collaborative approach brings together researchers with expertise in Alaska Native languages and geography (Gary Holton) and in web-based mapping and visualization applications for traditional knowledge (Peter Pulsifer).

Linking place names with maps and manuscripts allows for a greater time depth in place name research, since the archival record for Alaska Native languages stretches back some three centuries. Rather than viewing place names as lists of disassociated points, the integrative approach adopted here reveals connections between configurations of named places and socio-ecological dimensions of landscape, thus providing insights into biological and cultural diversity, adaptation and resilience, and cultural values and ecosystem services within the context of environmental change. In particular, this project provides a foundation for biocultural diversity research at the local level, avoiding subjectively-defined ethnic and linguistic boundaries. By comparing current and traditional resource use, ecosystem services can be understood, helping to inform policy and management decisions.

The open and extensible platform developed by this project will provide a foundation for use by both researchers and community members. The long-term institutional commitments by the two collaborating institutions positions this project to grow into the standard repository for Indigenous place name data in Alaska. The web-based platform and associated mobile apps provided can be easily navigated by K-12 students, yielding opportunities to incorporate geographic and environmental learning directly into the classroom. At the same time, the project framework has full GIS capabilities, allowing users to access geolinguistic datasets with analytical tools of their own choosing.

Principal Investigators

Gary Holton
Prof of Linguistics, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa


Peter Pulsifer
Research Scientist, National Snow and Ice Data Center


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant OPP-1415516. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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