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The Naming of Ketchikan, Alaska by Mary Henrikson
Fish detail © Mary Ida Henrikson
April 2012

When I was young and asked, “What does Ketchikan mean?” I was told Stinky Fish Creek.  I was disappointed my hometown had such a pungent name.

When Ketchikan lost its natural resource industry and began to rely on tourism for economic viability, those in marketing circles knew “Stinky Fish Creek” just wasn’t going to make it.  So it was redefined approximately as “Sound of Thunder on the Wings of an Eagle” because of a rock shaped like wings in the middle of Ketchikan Creek. The rock reportedly made a roaring echo when the creek was running hard. There was another rock with the same name at Loring, a small village north of Ketchikan and the rock in Ketchikan’s creek was named after a rock at Loring according to early reporting.

Keek Shan Han
Keek Shan Han © Mary Ida Henrikson
Creek Street
Salmon © Mary Ida Henrikson

One can imagine the local natives trying to tell Caucasian analytical minds all about “White Spot on a Fin”, which is what Keek Shan Han means. It could mean Orca or spawned-out salmon. Orca could have been marketed if the marketers understood it meant that instead of stinky fish creek, alas. The Tlingit language is conceptual and referential. Keek Shan Han tells the story of the salmon in a word. It refers to the dependency of the Tlingit on the salmon run and the life it gives to the shore and beyond. The term, therefore, means LIFE (in capital letters). Imagine trying to wax poetic about life and the salmon to J.R. Heckman for example. So the Speaker just held his nose and indicated a salmon with a white spot on its fin would be aromatic spawned-out marvel.

KEEK SHAN HAN means White-Spot-on-a-Fin Creek. The spawned-out salmon, spotted with white, embody the cycle of life and death. And thus signify continuing life and Heraclitus change. Keek shan han means LIFE and change. Ketchikan means LIFE and change.

*By the way, the rock was blasted out of the creek to make way for a waterwheel that would power a shingle mill on the shore. The rock is gone, but the smell lingers on, which is the power of life and change.

© Mary Ida Henrikson

Paintings by Mary Ida Henrikson

©Mary Ida Henrikson
More paintings by Mary can be found at

About the Author/Artist
Mary Ida Henrikson

Mary Ida Henrikson was born and raised in Ketchikan Alaska and was influenced by the adventure writers, photographers and artists grouped around the Alaska Sportsman Magazine that was published in Ketchikan. She studied art history, English literature, fine art, and philosophy at Central Washington University and Claremont Graduate University.

She found inspiration through the changing environments inherent in work on the North Slope, Alaska Marine Highway and the fishing industry. Mary also taught at Ketchikan Community College and University of Alaska Southeast. In 1990 she founded Danger Island Studio on Creek Street in Ketchikan and closed the studio to study in New York at the Arts Students League. She is shown nationally and is widely published.

See more paintings of her paintings and drawings at

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