It’s “Denali” – just let it go

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At 20,320 feet, the highest peak in North America is located in the Alaska Range, bearing the official name of Mt. McKinley.  It is also has the highest rise above its base of any land-based mountain in the world, even higher than Everest.  Throughout time, it has bore many names, from большая гора (“big mountain”) by the Russians to various names by Alaska Native groups: Dghelay Ka’a (Dena’ina Athabascan), Traleika (Aleut), or Denali (Koyukon Athabascan).  But it is the name of “Denali” that has endured, earning common recognition as the name for the mountain by modern Alaska Natives, mountaineers, and most residents of Alaska.  Even Congress recognized this when it changed the name of the park that houses the mountain from “Mt. McKinley National Park” to “Denali National Park & Preserve” with passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980.

It is also members of the Ohio Congressional delegation who have been primarily responsible for keeping the name of the mountain itself from officially changing to match that of the park and the name used by thousands of Alaskans.

Back in 1896, a man named William McKinely from the state of Ohio was running for President of the United States and had just received the Republican nomination.  Completely unknown to Mr. McKinley, a Seattleite prospector named William A. Dickey was looking for gold in the Susitna River valley of Alaska, and was irritated with local silver miners who promoted the Democratic candidate (who happened to be pushing for a silver standard in U.S. currency).  To retaliate, he threw his support behind McKinley by giving the name “Mt. McKinley” to the mountain known to the Koyukon Athabascans as Denali.  And unlike the prior English name of Densmore’s Peak, so named after a gold prospector, this one stuck.

But in 1975, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names officially changed the name of mountain to Denali. Then, at the request of Governor Jay Hammond, the Alaska Legislature officially requested that the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, the federal governmental body responsible for naming geographic features in the United States, change the name of the mountain from Mount McKinley to “Mount Denali.”

Unfortunately for Alaskans, there was a Congressman in Ohio, Ralph Regula, who took umbrage to this attempt by Alaskans to name their own geographic features.  Congressman Regula’s district encompassed Canton, where McKinley spent a great deal of his life.  Regula gathered signatures from other Ohio congressional delegates to put pressure on preventing the name change.  The passage of ANILCA seemed by some to be a compromise – by changing the name of the park to Denali while retaining the name of McKinley for the mountain – but Don Young, in perhaps the only good thing he has ever done for Alaskans in his 40 years of service in Congress, pressed again for the formal renaming of the mountain.  Congressman Regula would not stand for it, taking advantage of a Board of Geographic Names policy that prohibits changing names of geographic features while any bill about the feature is pending in Congress.  Congressman Regula started a biennial tradition of introducting a bill that prohibted the name change.

Even though Regula retired in 2009, two of his Ohio colleagues, Betty Sutton and Tim Ryan, continue to press bills preventing the name change.  Their latest effort is H.R. 229, “To provide for the retention of the name of Mount McKinley.”  In an astonishingly rare bout of simplicity in congressional decrees, it states, “Notwithstanding any other authority of law, the mountain located 63 degrees 04 minutes 12 seconds north, by 151 degrees 00 minutes 18 seconds west shall continue to be named and referred to for all purposes as Mount McKinley.”  The resolution was re-introduced in January 2011 as H.R. 247.  At this point, it has only been referred to committee; it has not yet been reported out of that committee.  In June 2012, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced a bill to change the name from McKinley to Denali.

Long story short, some prospector who has no authority to name geographic locations wanted to make a political statement in opposition to his mining rivals – even naming it “McKinley” as little more than a joke – and a century later, Alaskans are stuck with the name because of a couple of Ohioans.

William McKinley has absolutely no personal connection to Alaska, but plenty to Ohio.  He was born there, served in the House of Representatives for 14 years (first being elected at 34), and served two terms as Governor of Ohio before being elected as President of the United States.  And yet, he never visited Alaska prior to his assassination in 1901.  Perhaps he has visited it since in his spare time in the afterlife, but there is no way to confirm that.

Representatives Sutton and Ryan claim that they fight to keep “The Mountain” (as Alaskans often refer to it) named McKinley as a matter of pride in William McKinley and his legacy.  If he is really that important to Ohioans, then they should rename a prominent geographic feature in Ohio after McKinley.  I understand that the geographic features in Ohio lack the grandeur of a 20,000+ tall mountain, but at least it would be within a state that McKinley ever visited.  Or perhaps, why not put a huge statue dedicated to him somewhere.  There is another “Hero of Canton” who got a larger-than-life statue dedicated to him (although it was only made of fired mud) for doing something much less than being President of the United States – all he did was screw up and drop a bunch of cash out of his spaceship when escaping the authorities after committing a robbery.  I know, different Canton, but it makes the point.

Thousands of Koyukon Athabascan people over thousands of years knew it by another name, Denali, “the high one” (or “the great one”).  Geographic features across the United States are being renamed from the colonialist name given to them by European conquerers back to their original Native names.  Respecting the cultures of America’s indigenous peoples is something that we as a country have been slow to do, but we have hopefully gotten better at it.  At the very least it is considered progressive to be sensitive to such things, and yet, both Ryan and Sutton are Democrats, apparently incapable of seeing the irony of how their recalcitrant position on renaming The Mountain to reflect its thousands-year Alaska Native heritage is so disrespectful of those Native peoples.

It’s also, quite frankly, extraordinarily disrespectful to 650,000+ Americans who have a lot more vested interest in the name of their tallest mountain than folks do in the Buckeye State.  I wonder how many homes and businesses in Ohio bear the visual represntation of The Mountain compared to Alaska.  I would bet that more actual numbers of people and businesses in Alaska have a picture or graphic rerpesentation of The Mountain than they do in Ohio.  Certainly more businesses in Alaska are named after it – and they use the name Denali!

Not that anyone from Alaska has ever served as President of the United States, but if they had, would Ohio appreciate Alaskans forcing them to name the most dominant geographic feature in the state after that person?  What if Sarah Palin had become Vice President, and in the future some businessman from Alaska was visiting Ohio and decided that Lake Erie should be renamed Lake Palin?  Granted, William McKinley by recent historians was a much better president than we could have expected from Sarah Palin as VP, but the point is the same.

Representatives Sutton and Ryan, it is time you got in line with history and help to put an end to the subjugation of America’s indigenous peoples through usurpation of tradtional names for important geographic locations.  It’s time you allowed Alaskans the opportunity to name their highest mountain.  Aside from the issue of respecting the Alaska Natives and the residents of Alaska, it certainly would make life easier for all of us.  I am tired of having to use both names when talking about The Mountain.  We Alaskans call it Denali and everyone else wrongfully thinks – thanks to your perpetration of William Dickey’s joke – that the mountain is called McKinley.  So I always have to use both names when talking about outsiders or else they have no idea what I am talking about.  But everyone knows the park as Denali National Park (& Preserve).  It is time you just let go and find something better to do with your time that will actually help your constituents.

NOTE: A principal source for this post is the USGS Geographic Name Information System.  However, that system is designed to prevent links to individual page results from outside sources.  Another principal source is an online excerpt from Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong by James W.  Loewen.

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