Mt. McKinley’s Name Changed Back to Denali

Posted by on Sep 3, 2015

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Denali (source: National Park Service)

Denali (source: National Park Service)

United States President Barack Obama announced this week he would officially change the name of Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest peak, back to Denali, the original Native American name for the mountain.

Mount McKinley was named after Republican President William McKinley more than a century ago, but the name Denali has older roots in the language of the Athabascan people of Alaska. The name means “the high one,” or “the great one.” Denali’s summit reaches 5,500 metres and is covered by five large glaciers.

Disputes over the mountain’s name began in the 1970’s when the Alaskan legislature requested that the mountain’s official name be changed back to Denali. A stalemate was reached in 1980, when, as a compromise, McKinley National Park was renamed Denali National Park and Preserve, but the mountain’s name remained unchanged. Now, 40 years later, the renaming remains controversial. Though many Alaskans celebrate the name change, politicians from Ohio — President McKinley’s home state — are not happy. In a tweet, Ohio Governor John Kasich said Obama had “overstepped his bounds.”

In defense of Obama’s decision, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said President McKinley had never visited Alaska, adding that the deceased president had no connection to the mountain. Native Americans across the country have applauded the decision.

“Yes, we are truly excited about it- it’s a long time coming since Alaskans have wanted the change for  a long time,” Malinda Chase, from the Association of Interior Native Educators, told GlacierHub. “On the home front, it’s a definite celebration for our People, our Languages, and the ever-present guiding strength of our Ancestors, whom I’m sure will be celebrating in all their glory in the early morning sunlight shining on the high and stunning peaks of our wondrous Denali!”

First publication of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (source: University of South Carolina library)

First publication of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (source: University of South Carolina library)

Other major glaciated peaks have also had their indigenous names restored. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in East Africa, had a German name, Kaiser-Wilhelm-Spitze (Emperor William Peak) from 1889 to 1918, the date at the end of World War I when German East Africa became the British colony of Tanganyika, though some Germans kept using the name until 1964, when the colony, together with the island of Zanzibar, became the independent country of Tanzania. Ernest Hemingway’s famous short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” first published in Esquire Magazine in 1936, may have contributed to removing any lingering attachment to the mountain’s German, rather than its KiSwahili, name.

Aoraki-mount-cook-header-image

Commemorative New Zealand dollar (source: NZ Post)

New Zealand’s highest peak, Mount Cook, was given a double name in 1998, Aoroki/Mount Cook, placing the indigenous  Maori  name first.  This decision came after some decades of negotiation, in which the indigenous groups of southern New Zealand pressed their land claims under nineteenth century treaties. A commemorative non-circulating dollar coin was issued some years later.

And some mountains have names which remain unresolved. Mount Everest is known as Sagarmatha in Nepali and Chomolungma in Tibetan, and many have pressed to eliminate the colonial name. The highest peak in Tajikistan seems unlikely to retain its principal Soviet name, Pik Kommunizma, or its alternate Soviet name, Mount Stalin, but several others names are in use, including  Garmo and Ismoil Somoni, the latter being a leader of a 9th and 10th century dynasty in the region. The complex topography and difficult access of the Pamir Range contribute to the multiplicity of names which individual mountains receive.  

Nonetheless, a number of glacier-covered mountains around the world continue to be internationally known by the name given by colonial explorers. It seems likely that they will join Denali and Kilimanjaro in shaking off their colonial names–names used, it must be remembered, for only a small fraction of the history of human settlement in these mountains, or, at least, like Aoraki/Mount Cook, their double, hybrid status could be acknowledged.

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2 Comments

  1. In Central Asia this habit of naming mountains hasn’t gone away, yet. Kyrgyzstan named a peak in the Tian Shan range after Russian President Putin in 2011. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/kyrgyzstan/8239433/Kyrgyzstan-to-name-mountain-after-Vladimir-Putin.html

  2. from Tom Love, tlove@linfield.edu
    The name of the central (5822 m) of three majestic volcanoes standing like sentinels over the valley of Arequipa, SW Peru, has a curious history. While the current “Misti” appears to be a late colonial name connoting “mestizo” (a brown mountain half white with snow/glacier) or perhaps “Great Lord,” it is widely believed that the Spanish never learned its local name – it was simply “el Cerro de Arequipa” for colonial centuries. In fact they had, but suppressed its earlier Aymara (Anuqara) and Pukina (Putina) names for their negative associations, since both meant “growling dog,” referring both to its posture from the altiplano side as it sat looking at the sun setting in the ocean and the highland cultural association of dogs with guiding souls after death. Nearby “Huaynaputina” (young Putina) exploded in 1600 – the largest volcanic eruption in modern South American history.

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