Denali, the highest peak in North America and also a highly controversial mountain – its name has been the source of much debate over the past four decades.
Denali was first ascended in 1913 by an expedition led by Hudson Stuck and Harry Karstens; back then it was called Mount McKinley, but today, we know this majestic peak by its native name, Denali, but that did not come without much fight. In fact, the state of Alaska, where Denali is located, began proceedings with the Unites States Federal Government to get the name changed to Denali in 1975, but before we go there, let’s rewind to 1896 when the mountain was first unofficially named by a gold prospector as Mount McKinley. From that point, to westerners and non-native Alaskans, the mountain was known by that name. In 1917, it became official when the US Government dubbed the mountain “Mount McKinley” to commemorate the assassinated president, William McKinley, who sat as Commander and Chief from 1897-1901.
However, the native Alaskan people were not too keen on this name, especially because the mountain already had a name, the Koyukon called it Deenaalee or “the high one.” And they had been calling it that for centuries before a prospector came along and laid claim to a mountain that was neither his to claim nor undiscovered.
Over the years, the Alaskan Legislature appealed to the Federal Government to have the name changed back to its original name, and while many across the US were used to it being called Mt. McKinley, most understood the plight of the native culture and were onboard with the change, that is of course with the exception of many Ohioans and members of the congressional delegation from Ohio who blocked the Alaskan attempts to have the name changed. Why? Well, it’s because President William McKinley, whom the mountain was named after, was an Ohio native, and for that reason alone, it was viewed as a disrespectful, “great insult” to Ohio for the name to be stripped from the mountain and replaced with another – irony at its best.
After forty years of non-stop appeals, the mountain was officially renamed “Denali” on August 30, 2015, by Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell.
Now, technically, Denali has a long long history of being renamed. When Alaska was owned by Russia, it was called Bolshaya Gora (big mountain), and in 1889, the peak was called Densmore’s Mountain after a gold prospector who admired it. When it comes to Denali, the debate has never been about the sanctity of keeping a name for the sake of stability. It was really about respecting the culture of the native people vs. the age-old capricious wants of the “western man” that has seen entire cultures destroyed and appropriated in the name of “discovery” and “progress.” If the mountain had a name before a wanderer “claimed it,” why accept the name of the wanderer over the natives?
Regardless of whether or not the name will stick, I think it’s safe to say that most mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts enjoy the name Denali, it brings a sense of oneness with the mountain and the natural land around it. History has shown that whenever a native mountain has been given a western name in honor of a mountaineer or important person, that individual almost always prefers to have not had that happen. As is the case with Mount Everest. The highest peak in the world, although we know it as Everest, is actually called Sagarmāthā in Nepal and Chomolungma in China.
During the English survey of India, the closed-border nature of Tibet and Nepal made it hard for surveyors to name Everest, as they could not find a native name that was common to all surrounding nations. Instead, the Surveyor General of India decided to just name the mountain after Sir. Geoge Everest, his predecessor. The name stuck, however, not without a fight from Everest who did not want the mountain to carry a western name, especially one that could not be pronounced by the natives closest to the mountain. His vision wanted to see the mountains carry as many of their native names as possible, but despite his efforts, the mountain remained “Everest.”
It’s that kind of respect that the people of Alaska were hoping for from the US Government. But even today, that small expectation is being threatened with some people, like Donald Trump, who vowed to have the name changed back to Mt. McKinley as soon as he could.
For now, the name Denali remains, mountaineers everywhere refer to it as that, native Alaskans have a piece of themselves back and the rest of us, well, most of us think the name fits just fine.
United States. National Park Service, National Parks Service Of the. “Mountaineering.”National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, 00. Web. 31 Dec. 2016. Publication date is unknown
Zimmermann, Kelly Anne. “Denali: Facts About North America’s Tallest Mountain.”LiveScience. Purch, 03 Sept. 2015. Web. 31 Dec. 2016. <http://www.livescience.com/40595-denali-mount-mckinley.html>.
Feature Detail Report for: Denali. (2015, August 30). Retrieved March 5, 2019, from Geographic Names and Information Systems, United States Department of Interior