Orbiting the sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter is an oblong, asphalt colored object named Mathilde. Astronomers describe it as a loosely packed rubble pile, about 50 kilometers wide whose relatively small mass creates a gravitational pull 1,000 times weaker than earth’s. This dark, carbon rich conglomerate of matter is pock mocked with impact craters that reveal a history of violence in an existence that could otherwise probably be classified as pretty boring.
Tucked between two large craters named Damodar and Ishikari, is a 2.9-kilometer wide impact crater named Matanuska.
Like the rest of the blemishes that dot Mathilde, the crater Matanuska received its name in the year 2000 from the International Astronomical Union, who in turn lifted the names from the seductively titled book: Coal: Availability, Mining, and Preparation. The craters were named after coalfields on our planet, an elegant connection made by a scientist somewhere that undoubtedly has something to do with the high carbon content of the small planetoid.
When I was growing up the name that we used for the dramatic peak that leaps above Palmer was Byers. I’m not sure when the tide turned against Byers Peak and toward Matanuska, but sometime during my college years Matanuska firmly took root and nowadays I only hear the peak labeled Byers by the stubborn and the forgetful.
There is also a particularly potent strain of marijuana that nicks the word for part of its name, the latter half of which is not suitable for print and should not be Googled by those sensitive to the obscene. I will say however, that according to Urban Dictionary it is a strain known for its quality, so at least our fine Matanuska is not implicated in some shabby farming exploit.
Our electric association, phone company and countless other businesses proudly apply the moniker. There are roads, an old town site, our borough, a coal field, and of course, a silty river and a mighty glacier.
But what does this unlikely string of syllables mean and who first uttered it?
I had always assumed we could thank the Dena’ina for this evocative term, but according to the online resource for the Dena’ina Athabascan language at Qenaga.org, the Dena’ina people labeled the Matanuska River Ch’atanhtnu meaning ‘the River from Which Trail Comes Out.’ I am terrible at pronunciation. This simple fact has impeded my ability to speak non-English languages correctly and often results in comical and offensive situations when I travel abroad. But even I do not think I could mutilate Ch’atanhtnu enough to turn it in to Matanuska should I have been the first non-Dena’ina speaking person to encounter that word. Maybe it is like the old telephone game where the same message is whispered from one person to another until by the end it has morphed into an entirely new phrase. It seemed very unlikely however, so I searched more online but ultimately found nothing.
My mind chaffed against this unsolvable problem and as someone who grew up on the banks of the Matanuska River, my ignorance of this sliver of etymology made me feel foolish. When faced with situations like this in the past, I search out those smarter than I and toss my troubles their way and hope for resolution. To this end, I wandered into Alaskana Books in Palmer — that wonderfully rich bookstore in the shadow of the water tower that reminds you immediately upon entering that we live in a special, magnificent place, and within about a minute I had an answer to my silly query. After a brief consultation, Lynette Lehn had quickly conjured an answer, and multiple books suddenly materialized to confirm it. People who do things well never fail to impress me, and the women who run this bookstore have maneuvered themselves handily into this category. On a side note, I was sad to learn that they are in the process of selling their collection and moving on to other challenges — while I rejoice for whomever will reap the benefits of their sprawling talents, the loss of Alaskana Books will definitely be a blow to our communal intellect. Let’s hope at least that someone local snatches it up.
From the book Matanuska Colony – Sixty Years, The Colonists and Their Legacy: “Matanuska — The name is derived from the Russian term for the “Copper River people,” spelled Matanooski, Mednofski, Miduuski, Mednoviska, etc. It may have implied a 19th century route from Cook Inlet to the Copper River. The current spelling was used in 1897 by the United States Geological Survey.”
So there it is. The Russian word for copper stretched and twisted into a constellation of syllables that became a label for an indigenous Alaskan people. These people traveled on a trail down the valley of a braided glacial river toward Cook Inlet. The word was mangled and disfigured once more and brought into English where it has persisted through the years and helped define a region. It has been affixed to all wonder of things, even an insignificant pock mark that flies across our galaxy on a small, dark asteroid — I can only imagine where it will show up next.
Pete LaFrance grew up in Palmer and has moved back to the area after a number of years living abroad.