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What’s in a name? Mt. McKinley’s Makeover

September 3, 2015

Meet Mountains McKinley and Denali.

Mt. McKinley is the highest point in the U.S. And so is Denali.

Funny enough, they’re also both located in Alaska.

And here’s a picture of both.

National Park Service, Photo by Kent Miller

National Park Service, Photo by Kent Miller

Yes, they are the same mountain. But on a recent trip to Alaska, President Obama took the opportunity to erase the McKinley bit and replace it with Denali.

Same mountain, new moniker. So what’s the big deal?

To start, it seems that the Alaskans are heavily in favor of the change. Apparently, they have always referred to the mountain as Denali, the traditional Koyukon Athabascan name, so when the National Park Service offered no objection, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was greeted with fairly unanimous approval when she signed the secretarial order making it official. You can read more about the story from the Alaskan perspective here.

Apparently, Ohioans are less than pleased, and at least one legislator is going to fight to change the name back. According to a Washington Post story, Republican Rep. Mike Turner is more than a little peeved, siting the dishonor a name change does to the legacy of President William McKinley, who was assassinated in office.

On the one hand, we have the acknowledgement of native culture and tradition, and on the other acknowledgement of service to the nation. So what’s in a name?

Ethnologist Keith Basso may be helpful here in breaking down the importance a name can have, especially in Native American culture. In his work with the Western Apache, Basso found that place names were often strongly linked to a narrative event about the particular place’s history. Knowledge of many place names (and the stories behind them) is a mark of wisdom, and only through the understanding of this history can one achieve the “smoothness of mind” that comes with wisdom and age.

Though there are undoubtedly different traditions with place names across different Native American groups, Denali literally means “the tall one” in the native Athabascan language, and it plays “a central role in the creation story” of the group.

While some advocates of the change are lauding the reversal of America’s tradition of imperialistic naming, 3000 miles away in Ohio, people are riled up, and in the heightened atmosphere that accompanies the lead-up to 2016 election, the issue has become political fodder for the dichotomized race (here’s Trump on Twitter weighing in).

Risking a little reductio ad absurdum here, on one side of the scale we have a name that represents an important piece in the narrative of an entire people, and on the other side of the scale, a President who never made it to Alaska.

When I wrote this story on September 1st, it was 28 degrees in Denali and 91 in Dayton. I’d say we could all use a little more perspective.

If you want to know more:

  • Keith Basso’s book Wisdom Sits in Places is a wonderful exploration of the importance of “place-making” and the traditions that lie behind the Western Apache’s use of narrative.
  • In Landscape and Language, James Kari performs an interesting exploration of Ahtna Athabascan geographical knowledge, and how in the tribe, “place names are conservative; people report only the names they have learned, and they do not coin names” (242). I would argue this strong reiteration of place names across time and far-flung geography further supports the importance and permanency of place names like Denali for the Athabascan people.
  • For more detailed work on the language system of the tribe, see the collection of essays Athabaskan Language Studies.
  • And for another Silver Tongue take on the importance of names, try here.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 3, 2015 1:48 pm

    Excellent post. I think McKinley has many other things named for him in Ohio and elsewhere. Where as the erasing of native culture is a real problem. So let Ohio, hem and haw. 🙂


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