The late kerfuffle over the official recognition of Mount McKinley as Denali has taken me by surprise. I had actually thought that the name had been officially recognized ages ago. It turns out that while the national park surrounding it has been called Denali since 1980, the mountain itself has remained McKinley because of objections… from Ohio.

As you may know, Denali is not in Ohio. In fact, Ohio has no mountains. Why would Ohio wish to bend distant Alaska to its will like some alien Svengali? Just because Ohio happens to have the birthplace of President William McKinley. McKinley never visited Denali, but he was assassinated in 1901 and it was decided officially by the federal government in 1917 to name the mountain after him, following a tradition that had been started by a prospector who called it that when McKinley was still running for president. It had also been called Densmore’s Mountain.

Well, why would they ask the local Koyukon Athabaskan people what they had been calling it since time immemorial? They had a name for it, after all. It may not have been nailed on a sign, or somehow inlaid in the stone, but maybe someone could have asked them…?

The name, of course, was Denali, which means ‘the great one’ or ‘the big one’ (not, though it may sound appropriate, ‘the gnarly’). The Russians (who colonized Alaska for a while) had called it Bolshaya Gora, which means ‘big mountain’ and may have been a translation; anyway, it was more or less aligned with Denali. It is a big mountain; hard to deny that.

But when explorers explore and discoverers discover, they want to name things! It’s like when we were kids. We come to a new place and we discover a new playground. No one has ever seen this playground before! We just discovered it! I was the first here ever! Yeah? Well I was here two steps ahead of you, so I was the first here everer! Shut up, you two, I touched the swings first, so I was the first here everest! So what are we gonna call it?

Except, of course, we eventually learn that someone, in fact, built this playground, and lots of people have been there before. But if we’re adults in a new land, we conveniently ignore the people who were there before. They’re just this tribe we discovered! What shall we name them?

But you can’t ignore them forever. And indeed, the people of Alaska – even the non-indigenous ones – have been calling the mountain Denali for quite a long time. This isn’t some Democrat-versus-Republican issue; the politicians from Alaska who have been pushing for officialization of Denali include many Republicans.

But why would the people who live there matter, when we have this glorious tradition of honor to uphold? It’s America’s tallest mountain! It was named after an assassinated president! It’s cultural heritage! It’s always been that way!

For nearly a century, anyway. In the mouths and books of people who have never visited it and will never visit it. A change to the name is “insulting to all Ohioans!” Never mind that having Ohioans dictate what Alaskan mountains are called is insulting to Alaskans. It would be more sensible to name something in Ohio after McKinley, no?

It’s just like those fake “rules of English” (or social norms, or or or) that many people adhere to. They remember it being that way when they were kids, and maybe someone told them that was the rule, so that means it’s the great universal tradition from the golden ages and for all times. Anything else is a gross abuse and innovation.

And so we have the recent news headlines. Here’s one from The New York Times: “Mount McKinley Will Again Be Called Denali.” (Actually it never stopped being called that; it’s just being officially recognized.) But then here’s one from ABC News: “White House Renames Mount McKinley as Denali on Eve of Trip.”

Perhaps, after “renaming” the mountain what it was always called by people who had some connection to it, Obama can create a new state in honour of those who think McKinley was the original name and the local people don’t count. He can call it Denial.

2 responses to “Denali

  1. It’s good news as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an Alaskan refer to it as ‘Mt. McKinley’. It’s always ‘Denali’.

  2. Chips Mackinolty

    Great post. Just under thirty years ago what was then called Ayers Rock National Park was returned to its traditional Anangu (Aboriginal) owners, the Pitjantjatjara people. At the time, the vociferous opponents of this historic recognition claimed it would be the end of the world for variety of reasons. Not least the name change, to what is now Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The heavens didn’t fall in, and the vast majority of people call it Uluru.

    And “Ayers Rock”? “Discovered” by a surveyor William Gosse in 1873, and named after the Chief Secretary of South Australia–not even a dead president! A major site in the Park was also (from 1872), Mt Olga, the highest point in “the Olgas” was named by explorer Ernest Giles after Queen Olga of Württemberg (born Grand Duchess Olga of Russia, daughter of Tsar Nicholas I)! Now reverted to its original Pitjantjatjara name “Kata Tjuta”, which means “many heads”.

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