Alaska's indigenous languages map gets updated, for first time in 30 years

Ben Anderson

In 1974, Michael Krauss published a map
of the traditional territories of Alaska's indigenous languages and
peoples. It wasn't the first of its kind, but it was far and away the
most accurate, based on firsthand accounts of individual languages and the boundaries of where one ended and another began.
Krauss updated his map in 1982, and it has since become the standard
for gauging the traditional areas where Alaska Native languages were

Now, nearly 30 years later, the Alaska Native Language Center
(ANLC) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has released a new update
of Krauss's well-known map, which hangs in classrooms and offices around
the state. The new map
utilized new digital technology to make the information more accessible
and more comprehensive than the old-fashioned ink-and-paper approach
that Krauss was forced to use.

"The other (Krauss) maps
were done in a traditional sort of cartography approach," said Gary
Holton, director of the Alaska Native Language Archive and a linguistics
professor at the ANLC. "This map was created entirely digitally. We
digitized the language boundaries, we digitized the locations of the
village boundaries." All of which, Holton said, helped make the
information on the map more accurate, and to allow for easier editing
and updating in the future.

"Before, it was so difficult to
make any changes," Holton said. Krauss' original map was printed in a
technology that involved glass plates housed outside of Boston,
according to Holton. Updating it, he said, "required some very old
technology." Now, Holton said, a new version can be edited and created
in the space of day if needed.

Despite the differing
methods, Holton said that the new map is derived from Krauss' original
research. "We very much started from Krauss’s original," he said. "Even
though it’s changed from paper to digital, I think of it as the third

Given that the original map tracked traditional
boundaries for languages -- some that have been that way for centuries
-- what could change in the space of thirty years? While the main goal
was digitizing the information for ease of use and accessibility, and a
few small changes were made to the geographical regions, it also
presented an opportunity to update a few more details.

"There were several things that motivated the update," Holton said.
"Probably the primary thing was that some of the names of the languages
had changed -- not that they’ve become wrong, but they’ve become
outdated, or derogatory, or perjorative." This includes a shift away
from "Aleut" to "Unangax̂" in the Aleutian chain, among others.

original map also included imagery that conveyed the number of children
in each village that spoke their native language, which has been
replaced in this new version with clickable data for each village. The
digitization, Holton said, has allowed for more data while
simultaneously streamlining the appearance of the map itself.

of the most interesting aspects of the map is that it represents only
traditional language boundaries, not contemporary ones. The most obvious
representation of this is the presence of Eyak on the map, a language whose last native speaker died in 2008.

have to visualize this map as kind of a map of traditional language
territories, and that’s the only kind of map that makes sense," Holton
said. "Because if you think about migration and where people are now,
the number of Yup’ik speakers in Anchorage exceeds the number in Bethel.
That’s not traditional territory for Yup’ik. I think it only makes
sense to talk about traditional, pre-massive-migration sort of

Even the traditional boundaries were a bit of a
moving target, and researchers had to use their best judgment in
determining what boundaries should go where. Holton notes that even
though the Eyak territory ranges into  the area of Cordova,
Alutiiq/Sugpiaq speakers populated that region heavily beginning in the
mid-19th century. 

"Ironically," Holton said, "you have something today called the Eyak coroporation, and it’s mostly composed of Sugpiaq."

Holton admits they gave Eyak "a little bit of leeway" in its territory. "You can argue it's a little bit subjective," he said.

Maps are available for purchase for $15 from the ANLC, and a high quality version is currently available online at the website. An interactive version should be online by Aug. 1 at Alaskool.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)