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...

Mapping

A revolution in digital mapmaking is underway and the implications…

Cities

India has pledged $120billion to make its cities ‘smart’. But…

Cities

Buildings made from wood are becoming increasingly common in cities…

Forests

The lead author of a scientific study, which claimed that…

Cities

A team of researchers in Australia are urging urban planners…

Water

An artificial intelligence tool can predict where conflicts related to…

Water

Hundreds of historic landfill sites are at risk from erosion…

Cities

London has officially become the first of a new kind…

Mountains

A new model of the monsoon system, which dispenses with the Himalaya Mountains,…

Places

In the second of his features on the world’s geopolitical…

Water

The discovery a long ‘tongue’ of ice beneath a glacial…

Mapping

Benjamin Hennig explains two cartograms which demonstrate the global water…

Places

Get on your bike with this collection of stories to…

Water

The Brown Bank a haven for marine life in the…

Forests

The first payment under the Redd+ scheme to conserve tropical…

Places

In the first of a series on geopolitical curiosities and…

Cities

A socioecological model is predicting the areas of major US…

Mapping

Following the collapse of the upstream tailings dam in Brumadinho,…

Mapping

The domestication of animals for food, secondary products, labour and…

Cities

Strap in for a newer, greener experience in virtual city…