Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

What’s in a name?

Mount Denali Mount Denali Gary Yim
28 Oct
The highest mountain in North America’s has been renamed ‘Denali’ after 98 years of being called ‘Mount McKinley’

At 20,310 feet high, Mt Denali is, by one measure, the third highest mountain in the world. Like a colossal molar on the jaw of the Alaska range, the peak holds a cultural gravitas for the Alaskan Koyukon Athabaskan people, who came to call it Deenaalee or ‘the high one’ and continued to do so even after it was changed to McKinley in 1917. As of this September, President Obama officially changed the name back to Denali, while on a tour of receding glaciers in the surrounding national park.

Almost a century ago, the mountain became ‘McKinley’ in homage to the assassinated president, William McKinley, even though McKinley was from Ohio and had never visited the mountain, nor the state of Alaska. Ohio lawmakers have blocked Alaska’s efforts to restore the original name ever since.

Previously, the name had been restored to the park but not, specifically, the mountain. ‘This seems like a reasonable compromise,’ says Thomas Thornton, Associate Professor at the University of Oxford, ‘but it actually distorts the indigenous cartography – only the mountain is named “the High One”.’

While Obama’s move is undoubtedly symbolic, some remain sceptical about the improvements it will bring to the lives of Alaskan natives and their land rights. David Gaertner, Assistant Professor of the First Nations and Indigenous studies programme at the University of Vancouver, sees the naming issue in a colonial context: ‘It’s important not to underestimate the importance of giving indigenous languages back to the land. Names connect us to place and history. However, renaming is not a solution to colonialism – it can be a tool employed by settler governments to demonstrate their beneficence while continuing to deny communities land rights.’

This article was published in the November 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine.

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.


Subscribe to Geographical!

Adventure Canada


Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester




Travel the Unknown


Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Hung out to dry
    Wetlands are vital storehouses of biodiversity and important bulwarks against the effects of climate change, while also providing livelihoods for mill...
    When the wind blows
    With 1,200 wind turbines due to be built in the UK this year, Mark Rowe explores the continuing controversy surrounding wind power and discusses the e...
    Mexico City: boom town
    Twenty years ago, Mexico City was considered the ultimate urban disaster. But, recent political and economic reforms have transformed it into a hub of...


NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...


In this extract from his new book, Tides, mountain climber…


New data from the World Health Organization reveals that nine…


In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan,…


Benjamin Hennig maps out the global production and distribution levels…


Millions of Americans are living in areas at high-risk of…


New interactive maps combine precipitation and temperature to show climate…


Public transport in India could be on the verge of…


To retrace the route of the fur voyageurs on the waterways…


IPCC Cities and Climate Change Conference: Alberta host dresses non-renewable…


Increased carbon dioxide is affecting freshwater ecosystems


The latest laser scanning technology reveals new insights into the…


Deforestation is having an unexpected effect in the Amazon: fewer…


The iconic Douglas fir tree, familiar to fans of the…


Rocky Mountain forests are not regenerating after wildfires


Cape Town is edging closer to ‘Day Zero’, the long-feared…


Ongoing restoration projects are breathing new life into Florida’s Everglades


Despite protests, an experimental pedestrianisation system is proving to be…


National Archives map historian, Rose Mitchell, highlights some of the…


An expedition into the Jordanian desert is helping teachers and…


Trivia fans take note, Mount Hope in the British Antarctic…