In tribute to original residents, Juneau Assembly renames downtown Willoughby District

Juneau’s Aak’w Village District, formerly the Willoughby District, on June 25, 2019. (Photo by David Purdy/KTOO)

A downtown Juneau neighborhood has a new name.

Formerly known as the Willoughby District, the area will now be known as the Aak’w Village District, paying homage to its original residents.

Last year, descendants of some of the original residents of the Juneau Indian Village performed an oral history called “Aan Yátx’u Sáani: Noble People of the Land.” In it, they talked about the renaming of traditional Tlingit sites after white settlers. Like the area that was once the Aak’w Kwáan clan’s summer village. The clan was relocated there from Auke Bay when many went to work in the mines.

People now call it the Willoughby District.

Its namesake, Dick Willoughby, arrived in Juneau during the early mining days and went on to gain a reputation as a scam artist. He sold copies of postcards to tourists depicting what he called the “Silent City.”

It was actually just a photograph of Bristol, England, superimposed over a photo of Muir Glacier.

Even with that reputation, after he died a road was built through the Juneau Indian Village, and it was named after him.

It’s not entirely clear when the area became known as the Willoughby District, but the name has persisted for years.

That is, until the Aak’w Kwáan decided to request the change.

Clan spokesperson Frances Houston wrote a formal request to the Juneau Assembly earlier this year.

“I believe that the new name of Aak’w Village District is bringing back what is important to the Aak’w Kwáan clan,” Houston said recently. “So with my opinion, it is showing the respect going back to the rightful people of this area.”

The Assembly unanimously approved a resolution changing the district’s name to the Aak’w Village District Monday night. The district’s boundary includes the area between the Alaska State Office Building and Gold Creek, from Egan Drive to Village Street.

Tlingit Elder Rosa Miller (right) and her daughter Fran Houston address the crowd at an Auke Bay Elementary School event. Houston said changing the name of the Willoughby District to Aak’w Village District is partly her way of honoring of her mother. (Photo by Annie Bartholomew/KTOO)

Deputy City Manager Mila Cosgrove said it may take some time for locals to stop calling the area the Willoughby District, but the change will be reflected soon as the city works on the Downtown Wayfinding and Interpretive Element Project.

“So signage, instead of referring to it as the Willoughby District, will refer to it as the Aak’w Village District,” Cosgrove said.

For Houston, changing the name is also a way of honoring her mother, tribal leader Rosa Miller, who asked her to take on the role of speaking for her clan.

“I never thought I would be doing this, but it’s important. I know that I’m doing something important for the clan, and that’s to stand tall,” she said.

Earlier this year, students led an effort to add a Tlingit name to Juneau-Douglas High School. The school board approved the proposal, adding Kalé, meaning “beautifully adorned face,” to the school’s name.

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