Around the time I was in elementary school learning that the tallest peak in North America was called Mount McKinley, some in Alaska began to formally petition the federal government to change the official name of the mountain back to its Athabaskan name of Denali. The federal government, through the executive branch and more specifically the Department of the Interior declined to act due to the fact that legislation had been introduced in Congress to decide that very thing.
Forces in Congress aligned against each other and the matter was essentially held in limbo. A compromise was reached several years later which resulted in the mountain keeping its name, while that land around the mountain which comprised a huge national park was changed from McKinley National Park to Denali National Park. Officially the tallest peak in North America remained Mount McKinley, as thousands of young elementary school students were undoubtedly taught in the intervening years. For forty years on, the official name of the peak and its practical name were at odds.
My parents visited Alaska well in excess of a decade ago, and when they were showing us their travel photos I recall very specifically their trip inside Denali National Park because I had never heard the park called Denali before. I figured there must be at least two national parks in Alaska. I asked whether they meant to say McKinley National Park. No, they said. It’s called Denali. Then they pointed out to me the peak I had always known as Mount McKinley. It was the first I had ever heard of Denali.
My son and his new wife honeymooned in Alaska last summer, and when they were showing us their travel photos I recall very specifically their trip inside Denali National Park but they referred to that tall peak as Denali. The name Mount McKinley never even came up. I thought that the official name had already been changed.
So it came as a bit of surprise that Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell this week announced the official switch from Mount McKinley to Denali. While he isn’t specifically the one who decided to make the change official, President Barack Obama endorsed the change. It is not surprising that headlines across the internet declare “Obama changes name.” Semantics I suppose.
What I found far more surprising is that people were upset by the change back to Denali, a name in all likelihood that never fell out of use in the area, and whose use certainly has been widespread, even here in Ohio. I heard a lot of criticism of Obama that he made the change in an abuse of Presidential power. Donald Trump pledged to change the name back if he won the White House. Some, including Speaker of the House John Boehner from Cincinnati, claimed it was a slap in the face to all Ohioans. How absurd can one be? Changing the name of a mountain peak in Alaska to a name that folks in Alaska have been using for years (centuries?) is a slap in the face to Ohio? That is a real head-scratcher.
Let’s for the moment put aside the notion that the person for whom a piece of geography is named have any sort of connection to the geography for which it’s named. After all, there are countless Washingtons, Adams, Jefferson references throughout this country, and while maybe Jefferson had some connection through the Louisiana Purchase, certainly Washington and Adams didn’t other than being President. As for this mountain peak, McKinley had no connection with it or with Alaska at all, was merely a candidate for President, not President, when the peak was given his name and Alaska was not a united state, just frontier territory. They didn’t teach that part in elementary school.
McKinley won the Presidency after a hard fought campaign in 1896. One of the key issues in that race was the economy, the country was emerging from a depression and times were tough, and more specifically whether we should stick to the gold standard or start minting silver. Turns out McKinley favored the gold standard and his opponent, William Jennings Bryan, supported silver. Story goes that James Dickey, a gold prospector, was stuck in Alaska for a few days with a couple silver enthusiasts. After learning of the selection of McKinley to represent the Republican Party and more importantly, the gold standard, Dickey smacked the McKinley name onto Denali.
Mount McKinley works best in hindsight. McKinley went on to win re-election in 1900 and was unfortunately assassinated shortly after being installed in his second term. Teddy Roosevelt assumed the duties. McKinley’s presidency is not regarded as being particularly notable, one way or the other, although generally he is thought to be in the top half of Presidents by most accounts. I, like thousands of Americans, thought that McKinley was given his peak in memory of his service to the country, which included the ultimate sacrifice. I and thousands like me were wrong.
But whether he is deserving of having his name adorn the tallest peak on the continent is irrelevant. There are very little criteria for naming things. The planet’s geography is dotted with all sorts of places named by natives or white men who almost assuredly threw out the native name for something far more important like friends and government officials. So it doesn’t matter whether McKinley is worthy. A name on a piece of geography, while many find it honorable, is simply a name.
Denali is an unusual case. I don’t think it represents the first domino to fall in a chain of native name restoration. Renaming things or restoring prior names can be an expensive proposition. Denali was known as Denali for years and years by virtually all of those closest to it and not just by members of area native tribes. A search of the directory of members of the Denali Chamber of Commerce yields many times the number of businesses with the name Denali in their names than those with a McKinley. Officially restoring Denali required a few revisions in elementary text books and atlases and little else.
I congratulate the Obama administration for finally doing what Congress could not do for four decades.