On Re-renaming Denali

By 100m
September 4, 2015
Reading Time: 2 minutes
Filed under Naming

In June of 1896, a gold prospector named William Dickey was digging on the banks of Alaska’s Susitna River. Towering over the river valley was a giant peak, rising over 20,000 feet. While Dickey labored at the foot of the mountain, news arrived that William McKinley had won the Republican presidential nomination. Elated, the prospector took it upon himself to name the mountain after McKinley, and repeated the christening in an account of his travels published in a newspaper after his return to the mainland. Four years later, a US Geological Survey report set the standard for future maps by referring, for the first time, to “Mount McKinley.” In 1917, a bill formally named the mountain and established a national park around it.

Like many American landmarks, Mt. McKinley was originally known by another name. The Koyukuk people indigenous to the area knew it as Denali: the high one. When Alaska was under Russian colonial rule, the summit was called Bolshaya Gora, or simply, “big mountain.” Later, the peak was briefly known as Densmore’s Mountain, after another prospector whose naming ambitions were ultimately quashed by Dickey’s.

But Alaskans have always called the mountain Denali, and in 1975 their state legislature petitioned the US Government to reflect this fact in a name change. Enter Ohio congressman Ralph Regula, whose district included the town of Canton, President McKinley’s longtime home. He took the name change personally. By exploiting a technicality prohibiting a name change if legislation regarding that name is pending, Regula was able to postpone the decision indefinitely: every year, he submitted a bill to the House opposing the move. three decades of political deadlock followed.

Alaskans figured the coast was clear after Ralph Regula retired from office in 2009. But other Ohio boosters carried on his legacy, blocking attempts to rename Mt. McKinley. Finally, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell formally changed the name of the mountain to Denali, putting 40 years of political wrangling to rest. In her public statement, Jewell didn’t comment on the bizarre history of Ohioan meddling, stating only that “40 years is an unreasonable amount of time” to rename a mountain.

Criticism of the renaming has been swift and shrill, with most of it directed at President Obama. Ralph Regula himself compared Obama to “a dictator,” while novelty presidential candidate Donald Trump added changing the mountain’s name back to McKinley to his list of campaign promises. Ohio congressman Mike Turner responded to the news with indignation, opining, “I’m certain [Obama] didn’t notify President McKinley’s descendants, who find this outrageous.” McKinley, whose two children died young, has no modern-day descendants.

Denali, by contrast, has the Koyukuk Athebascans, born of its slopes, and the Alaskans who’ve climbed to its summit and revere it as a symbol of state pride. In the end, it was their name that won out.