Denali, or What’s in a Name?

At 20,320 feet, Denali is North America’s tallest peak (

I’m intrigued by the ways that the news media are referring to President Obama’s decision surrounding Mount McKinley / Denali in Alaska. Of course, much of the coverage focuses on the “controversy” of the president’s actions–not surprising given the election season–but what caught my attention is the way that the media consistently describe President Obama’s actions as “renaming.”

For example, according to CNN:

His first step while he’s there: officially renaming the country’s tallest mountain from Mt. McKinley to Denali . . .

The New York Times ran the headline “3,000 Miles From Denali, Ohio Fumes Over Renaming of Mount McKinley.” ABC News and NBC News use the same verb as well–it is an act of “renaming.”


The Oxford English Dictionary to the Rescue!

Why a “renaming”? The OED definition given above offers some flexibility–the name need not be a completely new one after all–but why not use a variation of  “restoration” instead? “Denali” is not a new name for the mountain, after all, but rather one rich in cultural history–and the NYT does pair “renaming” alongside “restoring” at one point in its article. In fact, “Denali” means “high one” in the Athabascan language (spoken by Alaska’s indigenous people), according to NBC News–an apt name for the highest peak in North America–and the surrounding area has been known as Denali National Park since 1980. The mountain was officially named Mount McKinley sixteen years after President McKinley’s death (the first application of the name came much earlier when “a gold prospector named it for McKinley in 1896, while McKinley campaigned for the presidency,” NBC News).

And as for commemorating President McKinley–according to NBC News,

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell pointed out that “President McKinley never visited, nor did he have any significant historical connection to, the mountain or to Alaska.”

(I feel compelled to point out that I live in a city named for an East Coast newspaper editor who never set foot in it.)

How does naming a mountain after someone who has never been there honor that person? Doesn’t imposing a name onto a mountain dishonor all of the names previously given to it? Why privilege the more recent history over the older?

To my mind, naming a mountain is much like naming a person. Each one has a unique personality and composition. To name a mountain for an American president, then, particularly one who has no real association with it, strikes me as a violent act because the action effectively erases the cultural history–and the essence of the mountain–in order to rewrite the landscape in a colonial sense.

One of my classes will be reading an excerpt from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century Historia Regum Britanniae [The History of the Kings of Britain], and this text reveals intriguing relationships between humanity and the landscape that I can’t help but connect to President Obama’s renaming of Mount McKinley.

In the first book of Geoffrey’s text, the land we now know as Britain has a cultural history prior to Brutus and his followers (legendary descendants of Aeneas):

In those days, the island was named Albion, and was uninhabited except by a few giants.

As Brutus and his men colonize the island, they engage in acts of renaming, and Geoffrey is explicit as to their motives:

Brutus called the island Britain, after his own name, and he called his comrades Britons. In devising these names, he hoped to be remembered forever . . . . But Corineus called the portion of the realm that fell by lot to him Corinea after himself.

The only recorded way in which the earlier inhabitants are inscribed on the landscape is through mockery and violence:

Gogmagog, falling against the sharp rocks below, was dashed into a thousand pieces. The tide was red with his blood. That place derived its name from the giant’s fall and is still called Gogmagog’s Leap up to the present day.

Gogmagog is one of the few remaining giants in Britain at this time, and he is killed by Corineus, one of Brutus’s followers, in a wrestling match that while fatal to the giant serves as pure entertainment to Brutus’s men. The word choice–“Leap”–is striking because it suggests willfulness on the part of Gogmagog whereas the truth is that Gogmagog did not choose to “leap” any more than he chose to be fragmented across the jagged rocks below the cliff from which he was thrown. Through this renaming in particular, Brutus and his men rewrite the “history” of Britain in a way that exculpates them from any wrongdoing.

Now, McKinley’s association with Denali is certainly not one grounded in bloody violence–but it is violent in another sense. As a result of the official renaming of the mountain in 1917, the cultural history and the relationship embodied by the name between the indigenous peoples and the mountain was washed away. No longer did Denali–the “high one”–tower over the local peoples, perhaps reminding them of their place in the world while inspiring them to reach for the heights through cooperation with nature (although we still talk about “conquering” a mountain by climbing it–so perhaps “cooperation” is not necessarily the right word here). Rather, Mount McKinley shifted attention far away, to a man–an American politician–who now imposed his presence over the inhabitants–a daily reminder that they were under the jurisdiction of a distant government that felt the need to erase their culture. McKinley didn’t know the mountain. He didn’t know its features (and I’m not trying to place the blame on McKinley–after all, he wasn’t responsible for his name being attached to the mountain), and he had never walked its paths. Why, then, is “Mount McKinley” a better name, according to some politicians, than “Denali”?

I’ve never been to Denali National Park, but I have been to Baxter State Park in Maine, home to Mount Katahdin (5,270 feet). Its name means “The Greatest Mountain” in the language of the Penobscot Indians. Why has this mountain not been exposed to the same type of linguistic violence that Denali has?

Both mountains were “discovered” fairly early in the United State’s history, but Katahdin gained prominence through the writings of Henry David Thoreau in the mid-19th century. Perhaps one reason for the longevity of “Katahdin” over “Denali” is due to Thoreau’s establishment of Katahdin in the American narrative. But in reading more about Denali, I learned that whereas Katahdin was climbed by a non-indigenous person in 1804, Denali resisted attempts until 1913. Of course, there is a slight difference of almost 15,000 vertical feet between the two, so that helps to account for why Denali was not fully climbed until over a century later.

But perhaps this also helps to account for the name change. Denali was a mountain that resisted colonialization, for many tried to climb this mountain and failed. Denali the mountain did not fit within the American concept of Manifest Destiny–but Mount McKinley brought the mountain firmly back into the purview of American politics. No longer was it a mountain that could not be scaled by the European settlers and their descendants; rather, Mount McKinley was one of the world’s largest political ad.

There’s another side to all of this, too. One of President Obama’s motives in restoring the name “Denali” to this mountain was ecological. CNN reports that

[Obama’s] first step while he’s there: officially renaming the country’s tallest mountain from Mt. McKinley to Denali, an historic nod to the region’s native population, which the White House says is under threat from the already-present threat of climate change.

By restoring Denali’s name, President Obama is shifting the conversation away from the political history of McKinley to a much broader scope: the cultural pasts of indigenous peoples and the future of the environment of Alaska. Isn’t this an important conversation to have?

My family spent a few weeks in Baxter Park after my father and I had hiked parts of the Appalachian Trail in either Virginia or New York (the summers run together in my mind). We couldn’t go into the park proper because we had two of our dogs with us (no pets allowed), so we found a small campground just outside the park’s boundaries. I didn’t go up the summit–my sister and I stayed back at the campsite with the dogs while my parents and brothers climbed Katahdin on a dayhike. My mom had borrowed my hiking boots for the day, and as she neared the summit, the boots gave out completely. I’ve heard it’s a challenging hike, but I cannot claim to “know” Katahdin in the fullest sense.

But during those weeks we spent at the base of the mountain, I was able to engage with the surrounding environment in meaningful ways. We waded out into the river to a large rock that thrust itself against the current to allow us to spend entire afternoons fishing. In the evenings, we would watch moose and otters splash in the water. We would occasionally rent canoes and paddle upstream to explore the tributaries. We discovered leeches and bears and deer and so much more. It was a great summer, one which has helped to shape my view of the world into one where I recognize that I do not stand apart from the natural world; rather, I am a part of it, and it has a much larger history than what we might find in the high school history books.

Welcome back, Denali.