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.