Saturday, October 3, 2015

Denali and the Name Game


       When President Obama changed Mount Mckinley’s name to Denali, my first thoughts were, “What gives him that right?” Then I heard the background story from some Alaskan friends, and I changed my tune. Now, I’m singing, “Right on. It’s about time!”
        In truth, it wasn’t really Obama who changed it anyway. It was Sally Jewel, Secretary of the Interior. She did it under authority of federal law, one that permits the head of the Department of the Interior to name geographic features if the U.S. Board of Geographic Names does not act within a reasonable period of time. I agree with Jewel: 40 years is more than reasonable.

That’s how long the name of the highest mountain in North America (20,320 feet) has been a subject of dispute. It was in 1975 that the Alaska legislature asked the U.S. federal government to officially change the name from Mount McKinley to Denali. It had been unofficially named in 1896 by a gold prospector who liked the Democratic presidential candidate, William McKinley, because he favored a gold standard for the U.S. currency. The name became official in 1917, in honor of the president who was assassinated in 1901.

Denali, which means, “the high one” in the tongue of Alaska’s Koyukon Athabaskans, is the English spelling of the native name for the peak. Part of the Alaskan Range, it was always commonly referred to as Denali by mountaineers and natives of our 49th state. But every time the state would petition the federal government for the name to change back to Denali officially, the Ohio delegation in the U.S Congress would block the petition, because McKinley was born and raised in Ohio. Never mind that he never set foot in Alaska, or that Ohio has no business trying to tell Alaska what to name their mountains.

In 1975, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the mountain to Denali, and at the governor’s behest, the state’s legislature officially requested that the U.S. Board of Geographic Names (BGN), the federal governmental body responsible for naming geographic features, change the name. Under BGN policy, the Board cannot consider any name-change proposal if congressional legislation relating to that name is pending. So every time the idea surfaced, an Ohio Congressman would either introduce language into Interior Department appropriation bills, or introduce a stand-alone bill, that directed that the name should not be changed. This effectively killed each Denali name-change proposal.

After a January 2015 bill submitted by an Alaskan senator re-proposed the name change, Secretary of the Interior Jewel took matters into her own hands. On August 30, she announced the name change, citing the board’s failure to act on the state’s four-decade-old request. President Obama sealed the deal during his trip to Alaska in September.

Surely most states can identify with Alaska on this subject. After all, “home rule” is a sore topic in each state, and no one wants  the federal government, much less someone in another state, telling them what to do.

Regardless of its name, Denali’s beauty is beyond belief. Next week, I’ll write about my trip through the national park and preserve last month and show you more photos.


  1. I had no idea. Thank you for the historical perspective.

  2. Excellent piece Elaine. You do good work.