Published January 7, 2016
On Monday, September 1, during a trip to Alaska, President Obama announced that the highest peak in North America would be officially restored to the Koyukon Athabascan name of Denali which means “the tall one.” This is the name the Athabascan people have used for the mountain for centuries. In 1896, a prospector emerged from exploring the mountains of central Alaska and received news that William McKinley had been nominated as a candidate for President of the United States. In a show of support, the prospector declared the tallest peak of the Alaska Range as “Mt. McKinley”—and the name stuck.
McKinley became our 25th President, and was tragically assassinated just six months into his second term. But he never set foot in Alaska—and for centuries, the mountain that rises some 20,000 feet above sea level, had been known by another name—Denali. Generally believed to be central to the Athabascan creation story, Denali is a site of significant cultural importance to many Alaska Natives. (White House Fact Sheet)
Many articles have been written about the significance restoring the name Denali has had for the Athabascan people. But in this piece I would like to acknowledge that this name change has been a passionate issue for the natives of Alaska for a long time and therefore reflect on the significance their efforts have had for the rest of the country.