President-elect Donald Trump made many promises on the campaign trail, but one in particular raised eyebrows in the Last Frontier — a vow to change the name of North America’s highest peak back to Mt. McKinley. The mountain’s name, changed to Denali by President Barack Obama just before a trip to Alaska in 2015, had long been a source of debate inside the state and Outside. And though there are legitimate complaints to be made about the manner in which the change was made, reverting the name would be a greater mistake and one out of step with the way the mountain has come to be known.
The Mt. McKinley moniker came about in 1896, the result of an Ohio prospector who wanted to buoy the presidential candidate from his home state. The name was adopted by federal authorities in 1917, and stood for 98 years before President Obama’s executive action to return it to its traditional Athabascan name of Denali. But the name never sat well with many Alaskans. The state board on geographic names established Denali as the Alaska’s name for the mountain. For years, the state’s U.S. senators had tried to make the same change on the federal level, but members of Congress from Ohio were able to gum up the works by introducing legislation relating to its name such that the U.S. Geological Survey couldn’t enact a name change on its own. They also blocked any efforts to vote on bills that would change the name to Denali, which were regularly authored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
President Obama ultimately resorted to executive action to change the mountain’s name, one of the few occasions on which Alaska’s delegation in Washington, D.C., cheered such a move. The action sat less well with some others, however, who felt executive action of that sort is wrong regardless of whether you agree with the result. That opinion is principled, and it’s not wrong. But in the case of the restoration of Denali’s name, the executive action came in response to an intentional blockade by a few people — often just a single Ohio lawmaker in Congress who took up the issue to drum up goodwill at home by supporting a native son of the state. The fight had already stretched for decades, and there was no way save executive action that it would have ended.
Other objections have been raised with the reversion of place names to former names, usually of Native origin, that few people alive today use. Those who raise this argument ask whether all of the place names in Alaska or other locales will eventually be reverted to names that are unfamiliar to most of the state’s people. This is not an unreasonable question to ask. But if a place has a traditional name well known to the people, especially as is the case with Denali, the “renaming” of the place to its Native name isn’t an act of revisionism but rather of restoration, respecting a name more meaningful to the state’s people than one applied with little thought by itinerant prospectors or other new arrivals in the early years of the Gold Rush.
This isn’t to say, of course, that all or even most of the state’s places should be renamed. Fairbanks, for instance, is another place named to curry favor with an Outside politician, but it was not a place of particular significance to Alaska’s Native people before E.T. Barnette was thrown off a steamer in 1901. But in cases where the traditional name for a place never passed from use, and has been in widespread use among all the state’s people for many years, there’s a strong argument that the name should be restored. Such is the case with Denali.
President-elect Trump may choose to make good on his campaign promise to switch Denali’s name back to Mt. McKinley, but such an action would be a mistake, and would require him to exercise the same method that some found objectionable when used by President Obama. Moreover, it would disrespect a mountain that, as Sen. Murkowski said, Alaskans have for generations known as “the Great One.”
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,