Mount McKinley Renamed Denali Because, Why the Hell Not?

The highest mountain in North America has been renamed after a lackluster luxury automobile for no apparent reason.

NYT (“Mount McKinley Will Again Be Called Denali“):

President Obama announced on Sunday that Mount McKinley was being renamed Denali, restoring an Alaska Native name with deep cultural significance to the tallest mountain in North America.

The move came on the eve of Mr. Obama’s trip to Alaska, where he will spend three days promoting aggressive action to combat climate change, and is part of a series of steps meant to address the concerns of Alaska Native tribes.

The central Alaska mountain has been called Mount McKinley for more than a century. In announcing that Sally Jewell, the secretary of the interior, had used her power to rename it, Mr. Obama was paying tribute to the state’s Native population, which has referred to the site for generations as Denali, meaning “the high one” or “the great one.” The peak, at more than 20,000 feet, plays a central role in the creation story of the Koyukon Athabascans, a group that has lived in Alaska for thousands of years.

Mr. Obama was also putting to rest a yearslong fight over the name of the mountain that has pit Alaska against Ohio, the birthplace of President William McKinley, for whom it was christened in 1896, while he campaigned for president.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, introduced legislation in January to rename the peak, but Ohio lawmakers sought to block the move. In June, an Interior Department official said in testimony before Congress that the administration had “no objection” to Ms. Murkowski’s proposed name change.

McKinley never visited Alaska and there was probably no reason for it to be named after him. But the name has stood for 119 years and is the name that everyone on the planet save for a few locals knows the mountain by. Now, it’s been renamed via executive fiat after a generic local name that just means “high one” and is most associated with the rest of us as a sub-brand of GMC trucks—which itself is merely a separate brand under which Chevy vehicles are sold with slightly different badging.

In all seriousness, I’m sure the native population is happy with this name change and it does no real harm to outsiders. But the locals were calling it “Denali” anyway. Now the other 7-plus billion people on the planet have to learn a new name for, well, no apparent reason.

 

 

FILED UNDER: Quick Takes, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Mu says:

    Someone should introduce a bill to rename Washington DC into “home of the idiots”. Congress’ approval rate would soar.

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    OK, so when is he going to rename Mt Washington in Oregon back to it’s native American name squa tit.?

  3. James says:

    You were probably against remaining Ayers Rock Uluru. Who cares what the native population might want it that this fight has been going on for decades as long as you get to be a git about it.

  4. ernieyeball says:

    …it’s been renamed via executive fiat after a generic local name that just means “high one”…

    Should have named the peak Mt. Timothy Leary.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    Silly but harmless.

  6. Pinky says:

    The Secretary of the Interior has the power to rename mountains? Nowthere’s the way a Republican candidate can buy off Trump. “Think about it, Donald: if you support me, I’ll let you fly around the country for four years naming natural landmarks after yourself.”

  7. Gustopher says:

    In all seriousness, I’m sure the native population is happy with this name change and it does no real harm to outsiders. But the locals were calling it “Denali” anyway. Now the other 7-plus billion people on the planet have to learn a new name for, well, no apparent reason.

    Of course, since Obama can do no right with certain segments of the right, I eagerly anticipate the outrage and the offensive comments about Native Americans that goes along with it, demonstrating the Republican Minority Outreach at its finest.

    Are there things in the Southwest that can be restored to a Spanish name, for which no one remembers the local Native American name?

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m astonished. I thought the official name had been changed decades ago. I don’t think I’ve heard the mountain called anything but Denali in a quarter century or more.

  9. PJ says:

    @James Joyner:

    Now the other 7-plus billion people on the planet have to learn a new name for, well, no apparent reason.

    Outside of the US and Canada, I would assume that most of the people knowing the name of North America’s highest peak are mountaineers, pub quiz attendees, or kids who also know the capital of every country. So, not that many.

    It’s not like they are going to rename Mt. Everest, which I wouldn’t have a problem with anyway. George Everest didn’t want them to name it after him and we are not even pronouncing the name correctly.

  10. James Pearce says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    I don’t think I’ve heard the mountain called anything but Denali in a quarter century or more.

    Seriously…..

    Come to think of it, while I’ve heard climbers talk about climbing Denali…..never heard them talk about climbing McKinley.

  11. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler: That’s interesting. I’ve been vaguely aware of the controversy for a while but never heard it referred by anyone on the mainland as other than “McKinley.” You’re more attuned to things Alaska because of your interest in the Iditarod, so maybe that skews things?

  12. James says:

    @James Joyner: Nope, I grew up in rural Illinois and knew it as Denali. Never been to Alaska, never followed the Iditarod, just well read and well traveled.

  13. Dave Schuler says:

    @James Joyner:

    Well, yes. For about a week and a half each year we’re glued to Alaska television following the Iditarod. Mushers’ occupational hazard.

  14. Todd says:

    The ridiculously out of proportion outrage over this by some of my conservative friends on Facebook just has me laughing at the old joke “If Obama came out in favor of air, Republicans would hold their breath.”

    btw, pretty much all of my military friends (even the conservatives) who are now or have lived in Alaska seem to be cool with this change.

  15. James Pearce says:

    @James:

    Nope, I grew up in rural Illinois and knew it as Denali.

    Well, to be fair, “Mount McKinley” is the typical answer to “What is the highest peak in the United States?” So from a Jeopardy/Trivial Pursuit angle, James is right that McKinley is “the name that everyone on the planet ….knows the mountain by.”

    It’s just that he seems to have underestimated the number of people who call it something else.

  16. MarkedMan says:

    I’ve been to Alaska a couple of times in the last twenty years and have to admit my ignorance was such that I thought McKinley and Denali were two different mountains. I knew “Mt McKinley, Alaska” as the answer to the inevitable trivia question, but given that everything in Fairbanks seemed to reference Denali I thought it was another mountain. If I thought I bought it at all I would have assumed it was the cool climber’s mountain.

    Poor sportsmanship on Ohio’s part in blocking the Alaskan’s preferred name for something in their state. And what a frickin’ waste of time when our infrastructure is collapsing. Aren’t the Ohio sSenators Dems? Boo for my team…

  17. Franklin says:

    @James: Is your name Dave? 🙂

  18. Slugger says:

    I used to have mountaineering friends, and they all called it Denali. I am older now, and there are few old mountaineers, and I don’t know what it is called now a days by the kids. Denali flows off the tongue much better than McKinley. The anglo-saxon name has been around for 119 years? Only an American would think that that’s a long time. Also, I would be o.k. with Mt.Rainier going back to “Tachoma” with the middle “ch” pronounced like a Scot pronounces it in Glenfiddich which is the way I heard a speaker of Salish say it. We should stick with values for pronunciation that reflect the way God spoke in the first chapter of Bereshis.

  19. nitpicker says:

    Alaskans both Republican and Democrat have been asking for this change for decades. Why name the most majestic Alaskan peak after a mediocre president from Ohio whose only memorable achievement was being shot?

  20. nitpicker says:
  21. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    Do you ever think about how often you sound like Ted Cruz and the rest of the band of idiots?

  22. DrDaveT says:

    I’m with Dave Schuler here.

    I’ve never been anywhere near Alaska. I don’t follow the Iditarod or any other Alaskan event. I have no Native American ancestry. I grew up calling the thing Mt. McKinley like I’d been taught, and switched over to calling it Denali a couple of decades ago when, well, everyone else did.

    James, I think you hang with a skewed sample.

    FWIW, the national park (whose name had always pissed off Alaskans) was combined in 1980 with the Denali National Monument, and the whole thing was renamed “Denali National Park and Preserve”. Since the name came from the name of the mountain, I’m guessing that’s when the tendency to call the mountain by its actual name went viral.

    Seriously, do you also roll your eyes about the US deciding to call our 50th state “Hawai’i”, rather than “the Sandwich Islands”?

  23. RGardner says:

    Next up for political correctness, why is the Washington strato-volcano called Rainier, after a British Admiral that never was in the PaNorWest_ In my county, we call it Mt Tahoma (or Mt Tacoma). Local High School has that name..

    More seriously, it is McKinley, Rainier, etc. I got over it. Was in Mt Rainier Nat’l Park on Tuesday, called it Rainier.

    Useless grandstanding..

  24. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    So from a Jeopardy/Trivial Pursuit angle, James is right that McKinley is “the name that everyone on the planet ….knows the mountain by.”

    For a real Jeopardy player knowing changes like this are what differentiates the real players from the boxed version wannabes :D.

  25. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: The islands hadn’t been referred to as the Sandwich Islands for generations by the time Hawaii became a state. I do tend to omit the apostrophe and to pronounce it “huh WY ee” rather than “huh WAH ee.”

  26. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Way to wear your white privilege James. For the record, it was Denali for a few thousand years before some white man came along and decided to hang the name of some lackluster not even presidential wanna be on it. It is absolutely ridiculous how our history is replete with things being lauded as “courageous” or “genius” or (my favorite) “first time ever” when a white man does something the natives have been doing all along.

    Obama did NOT rename the mountain. He returned it to it’s original name.

    And for the record, as a caver who has “found” and explored many caves (some as the first human in known history to enter, more than a few as the first human ever) I know more than a little about this issue. I have named more than a few caves over the years, but if the locals have a name for the hole in that hill, that is the name of the cave. Period. I don’t get to put my own chosen name to it just because I am the one to report it to the state cave files. And if a later perusal of archives brings to light a historical name that fell out of local usage? It should be changed to that.

    Being the first “caver” is beside the point, as is being the first “white man”.

  27. Marty Beach says:

    I spent a couple weeks in Alaska in 2004 (and in Denali National Park), and never heard anyone refer to the mountain as ‘McKinley’. It was always Denali or ‘The Great One’. Even coming home, people would ask me if I saw Denali. (Most times it’s shrouded in clouds or fog, so even seeing it while in the park is somewhat unusual).

  28. Not SpamSpamSpam says:

    This particular individual (a certain hill folk from a plateau located in s. MO and n. AR) has once again been caught up in a spamophobic filter

  29. Electroman says:

    On my first visit to Alaska, I was astonished that the mountain was still officially “Mount McKinley”. I had been calling it Denali for years.

  30. James Pearce says:

    @RGardner:

    Was in Mt Rainier Nat’l Park on Tuesday, called it Rainier.

    Useless grandstanding.

    I can’t think of anything more useless and grandstanding than defiantly refusing to accept the name change because you buy into some right wing narrative about Obama’s overreaching executive orders.

  31. Rafer Janders says:

    Same, I’ve been calling it Denali since the 1990s, and in all the years since then I’ve never met a climber, hiker, outdoorsman, etc. who calls it anything but that.

  32. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    The islands hadn’t been referred to as the Sandwich Islands for generations by the time Hawaii became a state.

    I’m not sure what “…the time Hawaii became a state” has to do with anything here. The point was that everyone went back to calling the place by its local name, rather than by the European name imposed when it was “discovered” by them. The duration of the imposed name was comparable in both cases — starting to lose favor 70 or 80 years after the naming, with the original name made (re-)official a bit over a century after the imposed naming.

    So where’s the difference? If it’s just “that was a long time ago”, I don’t think that’s much of an argument.

    (The US was never going to call them the Sandwich Islands, for political reasons — we didn’t want to do anything to legitimize the British claim to them. That has nothing to do with the history of the use of the name prior to annexation.)

  33. Grewgills says:

    Now, it’s been renamed via executive fiat after a generic local name that just means “high one”

    Most place names are ‘generic’ in that sense. That doesn’t make the place or name less sacred to the local populace. The two largest mountains here are just as “generically” named, but the native Hawai’ians and pretty much everyone here would be pissed if Mauna Kea (white mountain) or Muana Loa (wide mountain) were renamed.

  34. James says:

    @Franklin: Shockingly, my name is James.

  35. grumpy realist says:

    @MarkedMan: You’ve reminded me of the Matterhorn, which is called a COMPLETELY different name from the Italian side….

    Turns out it took people a long time to realize they were talking about the same mountain, because you can’t easily get from the North side to the South side (or vice=versa) Bit of a mountain range in the way

  36. Lahar says:

    First year of grad school, 1974. Moved into my new apartment and met my neighbors, two guys testing climbing gear out on the huge tree in front. They were going to climb the west rib of McKinley. I was stoked, and practiced rock climbing with them for several months before they headed off to Alaska. When they came back, they talked about the mountain being Denali. They never referred to it as McKinley ever again. Since then, no one I know who actually climbs has ever referred to this mountain as McKinley. The name McKinley meant something to Ohio politicians, but to the real people who knew about the mountain it was always Denali. It is about time.

  37. Davebo says:

    The highest mountain in North America has been renamed after a lackluster luxury automobile for no apparent reason.

    Leaving aside the fact that the Denali is not a luxury vehicle and that the mountain isn’t being named after said vehicle, what’s the problem James?

    As noted, people actually familiar with the mountain have called it Denali for a long time, so what if they haven’t?

    As for the change coming from that ignorant right wing meme “by executive fiat” you toss out. Please name the US peak that was named via congressional action. Take some time to think about it.

    Because obviously you don’t want to think about what’s actually going on in politics in America. And hell, who could blame a lost Republican for that?

  38. James Joyner says:

    @Davebo: Mostly, aside from a Daily Show skit, this seemed to come out of nowhere on a Saturday. That most aficionados were already calling it “Denali” for years was news to me, which indeed makes it less problematic.

    Given that this has been bashed back and forth in Congress for 40 years, I’m skeptical of its being resolved via an executive order. It’s either in Congress’ purview or it isn’t.

    Nor is this a reflexive anti-Obama position. I’m generally skeptical of presidents doing things around Congress in this manner.

  39. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: FWIW, here’s some further background: 20 years ago or so, the Alaskan’s started lobbying the parks dept to rename the Mountain back to Denali. The Ohio Congress critters introduced a bill to “resolve” the issue and then another bill that said the Parks dept couldn’t act until all such bills had cleared congress. That second one seemed reasonable so it passed and became law. The Ohio delegation tied the first one up in committee and then proceeded to introduce a new one every two years so there is continuously a bill pending and parks can’t act. Alaska doesn’t have the Congressional umph that Ohio has so they can’t get the law repealed. Basically Obama called “shenanigans” and took the ball away from them. He probably figured it was a low risk way to please the Alaskans during his visit.

    And, also FWIW, I don’t think it is just aficionados. When I was in Alaska, “Denali” was everywhere. T-shirts, names of businesses, various races, etc. I don’t recall seeing McKinley at all, although as I mentioned I didn’t realize they were the same mountain and so wasn’t keeping score.

  40. Craigo says:

    @James Joyner: You’re skeptical of the executive branch using the authority explicitly delegated to the Secretary of the Interior by Congress, you mean.

    People would have a modicum of respect you if you would just own your positions instead of being a weasel and protesting too much.

  41. Davebo says:

    @Craigo:

    Good point, but wasted. Still, A for effort.

  42. dazedandconfused says:

    I’m looking forward to the next time somebody lays the “…it’s not just a river in Egypt.” on me.

  43. DrDaveT says:

    @Craigo:

    You’re skeptical of the executive branch using the authority explicitly delegated to the Secretary of the Interior by Congress, you mean.

    Yeah, that’s the double-whammy here. It’s not “renaming Mt. McKinley”; it’s restoring the long-standing name of the mountain after a century of imposed political silliness. It’s not “Executive overreach” going around Congress, it’s an authority explicitly granted to the Executive by Congress. But we can’t let that get in the way of a good eye-roll…

  44. george says:

    In all seriousness, I’m sure the native population is happy with this name change and it does no real harm to outsiders. But the locals were calling it “Denali” anyway. Now the other 7-plus billion people on the planet have to learn a new name for, well, no apparent reason.

    Actually in Canada probably more people know it as Denali – if you’re not a mountaineer you’ve probably not heard of it, and just about every mountaineer I’ve ever known (and that’s quite a few because I used to climb) called it Denali.

    But beyond that, I don’t understand why locals should take that into consideration when changing names. St.Petersburg->Leningrad->St.Petersburg didn’t cause much ruckus, neither did going from Peking->Beijing, or Bombay->Mumbai.

    People are adaptable. If getting used to something used as regularly as the name of Chinese capital didn’t create problems, something like a name change in a seldom referenced mountain is going to be a piece of cake.