Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

What’s in a name?

Mount Denali Mount Denali Gary Yim
28 Oct
2015
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

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...

Water

The controversial practice of cloud-seeding has always been difficult to…

Forests

The impact of wildfires on water supplies has received little…

Mapping

Benjamin Hennig maps the two sides of global malnutrition –…

Cities

Thomas Bird reports on the coronavirus, speaking to those trapped…

Forests

The world’s second largest tropical forest receives significantly less funding…

Cities

The world’s first water-borne dairy farm has been erected on…

Cities

Continental Europe’s most extensive underground rail transport network, the Madrid…

Cities

A central highway in Brazil’s largest city is about to…

Cities

Urban photography marries themes and passages from TS Eliot in…

Mapping

From Leonardo da Vinci’s genius and the history of Starbucks,…

Mapping

How do you usually travel to work? Question 41 in…

Water

The Nile is home to mysteries both ancient and modern…

Places

While researching his main article on the world’s smallest countries,…

Places

Vitali Vitaliev briefly meets the down-to-earth ruler of Liectenstein

Places

In the third of his series on geopolitical oddities, Vitali…

Water

Increased rainfall intensity, predicted to occur as the climate changes,…

Deserts

Now in its fourth year, this annual lecture series highlights…

Cities

With Jakarta suffering from severe subsidence, pollution and congestion, Indonesia…

Mapping

A revolution in digital mapmaking is underway and the implications…