Denali–Mount McKinley naming dispute

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View of the mountain, centerpiece of Denali National Park and Preserve.

The name of the highest mountain in North America became a subject of dispute in 1975, when the Alaska Legislature asked the U.S. federal government to officially change its name from Mount McKinley to Denali. The mountain had been unofficially named Mount McKinley in 1896 by a gold prospector, and officially by the United States government in 1917 to commemorate William McKinley, the assassinated U.S. president.

The name Denali is a based on the Koyukon name of the mountain, Deenaalee translated as "the high one".[1][2] The Koyukon are a people of Alaskan Athabaskans settling in the area north of the mountain.[3][1]

Alaska in 1975 requested that the mountain be officially recognized as Denali, as it was still the common name used in the state. Attempts by the Alaskan state government to have Mount McKinley's name changed by the federal government were blocked by members of the Congressional delegation from Ohio, the home state of the mountain's presidential namesake.

In August 2015, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the name would officially be changed in all federal documents.[4][5] While on an Alaskan visit in the first week of September 2015, President Barack Obama announced the renaming of the mountain.[6]

Historic names[edit]

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Numerous indigenous peoples of the area had their own names for this prominent peak. The local Koyukon Athabaskan name for the mountain, the name used by the indigenous Americans with access to the flanks of the mountain (living in the Yukon, Tanana and Kuskokwim basins), is Dinale or Denali /dɨˈnæli/ or /dɨˈnɑːli/).[7] To the South the Dena'ina people in the Susitna River valley used the name Dghelay Ka'a (anglicized as Doleika or Traleika in Traleika Glacier), meaning "the big mountain".[1][8]

The historical first European sighting of Denali took place on May 6, 1794, when George Vancouver was surveying the Knik Arm of the Cook Inlet and mentioned "distant stupendous mountains" in his journal. However, he uncharacteristically left the mountain unnamed. The mountain is first named on a map by Ferdinand von Wrangel in 1839; the names Tschigmit and Tenada correspond to the locations of Mount Foraker and Denali, respectively. Von Wrangel had been chief administrator of the Russian settlements in North America from 1829–1835.[8]

During the Russian ownership of Alaska, the common name for the mountain was Bolshaya Gora (Большая Гора, "big mountain" in Russian).[9] The first English name applied to the peak was Densmore's Mountain or Densmore's Peak, for the gold prospector Frank Densmore, who in 1889 had fervently praised the mountain's majesty; however, the name persevered only locally and informally.[7]

McKinley naming[edit]

The mountain was first designated "Mount McKinley" by a New Hampshire-born Seattleite named William Dickey, who led a gold prospectoring dig in the sands of the Susitna River in June 1896. An account written on his return to the contiguous United States appeared in The New York Sun on January 24, 1897, under the title Discoveries in Alaska (1896).[10][11] Dickey wrote, "We named our great peak Mount McKinley, after William McKinley of Ohio, who had been nominated for the Presidency, and that fact was the first news we received on our way out of that wonderful wilderness."[10][11] By most accounts, the naming was politically driven; Dickey had met many silver miners who zealously promoted Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan's ideal of a silver standard, inspiring him to retaliate by naming the mountain after a strong proponent of the gold standard.[11]

In the 1900 report of the US Geological Survey (USGS), Josiah Edward Spurr refers to "the giant mountain variously known to Americans as Mount Allen, Mount McKinley, or Bulshaia, the latter being a corruption of the Russian adjective meaning big".[12] The 1900 report otherwise calls it Mount McKinley,[13] as does the 1911 USGS report The Mount McKinley Region, Alaska.[14]

McKinley was assassinated early in his second term, shot by Leon Czolgosz on September 6, 1901, and dying of his wounds on September 14. This led to sentiment favoring commemoration of his memory, and the Federal government officially adopted the name Mount McKinley in 1917, when Congress passed and President Woodrow Wilson signed into law "An Act to establish the Mount McKinley National Park in the territory of Alaska".[15]

Alaska Board of Geographic Names attempts to change name[edit]

Ohio Congressman Ralph Regula's opposition prevented the renaming of Mount McKinley from 1975 to 2009.

The mountain was always commonly referred to by its Koyukon Athabaskan name Denali, especially by Alaskans, mountaineers, and Alaska Natives. In 1975, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the mountain to Denali,[16] and, at Governor Jay Hammond's behest, the Alaska Legislature officially requested that the United States Board on Geographic Names (BGN), the federal governmental body responsible for naming geographic features in the United States, change the name of the mountain from "Mount McKinley" to "Mount Denali".[17]

Ohio congressman Ralph Regula (whose district included Canton, where McKinley spent much of his life) opposed action by the U.S. Board and was able to prevent it.[18][19] At first, the Board consideration was delayed by opposition from Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton, under whose purview the board fell, as he personally did not favor a change of the mountain's name.[17] Later, in 1977, with Secretary Morton no longer at the helm of the Department of the Interior, the Board again prepared to consider the name change, but Regula gathered signatures from every member of the Ohio congressional delegation against renaming Mount McKinley, and no ruling was made.[11][17]

On December 2, 1980, with President Jimmy Carter's signing into law of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), McKinley National Park — which had been created on February 26, 1917[11] — was incorporated into a larger protected area named Denali National Park and Preserve.[20] Naming the new, larger park Denali, while retaining the name Mount McKinley for the actual mountain was thought to be a compromise by many "Mount McKinley" partisans.[20][21] However, "Denali" advocates, including Alaska Congressman Don Young, rejected the position that the 1980 action constituted a real compromise, and instead argued that naming the mountain and park by different names only created confusion.[21][22] While the Board was originally set to make a ruling on December 10, 1980, with the passage of Lands Conservation Act on December 2, they opted to defer their ruling yet again.[17][23]

The following year, Regula used a procedural maneuver prevent any change to the Mount McKinley name. Under U.S. Board on Geographic Names policy,[24] the Board cannot consider any name-change proposal if congressional legislation relating to that name is pending. Thus Regula began a biennial legislative tradition of either introducing language into Interior Department appropriation bills, or introducing a stand-alone bill that directed that the name of Mount McKinley should not be changed.[17][25] This effectively killed the Denali name-change proposal pending with the Board.[17]

Renewed efforts to change name – 2009 to 2015[edit]

In 2009, the retirement of Regula reinvigorated interest in renaming the mountain. Alaska State Representative Scott Kawasaki sponsored Alaska House Joint Resolution 15, which urges the U.S. Congress to rename the mountain Denali.[26] Despite efforts in Alaska, Ohio Representatives Betty Sutton and Tim Ryan assumed Regula's role as congressional guardians of the Mount McKinley name and introduced H.R. 229 which reads: "Notwithstanding any other authority of law, the mountain located 63 degrees 04 minutes 12 seconds north, by 151 degrees 00 minutes 18 seconds west shall continue to be named and referred to for all purposes as Mount McKinley."[27]

A January 2015 bill submitted by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski re-proposed renaming North America's highest peak as Denali. In June 2015 testimony to Congress, the National Park Service's associate director stated that the NPS "has no objection to adopting the name of Denali for Mt. McKinley".[28] The Daily Show spoofed the name dispute in a July 2, 2015 sketch entitled "Living in Denali", in which "correspondent" Jordan Klepper is flown to the summit of then-Mount McKinley, and plants a flag reading, "Don't be a dick; change the name."[29]

Denali established as official name[edit]

On August 30, 2015, Sally Jewell announced that the mountain would be renamed Denali, under authority of federal law which permits her as Secretary of the Interior to name geographic features if the Board of Geographic Names does not act within a "reasonable" period of time. In media interviews, Jewell cited the board's failure to act on the state's four-decade-old request, saying "I think any of us would think that 40 years is an unreasonable amount of time."[3][4][5][30][31]

Reactions to name change[edit]

Ohio Republicans were critical of the renaming. John Boehner, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, who is from Ohio, said he was "deeply disappointed" by the change,[32] while now-retired Regula commented that Obama "thinks he is a dictator".[33] Ohio Congressman Mike Turner vowed to fight the change, commenting that "I'm certain [Obama] didn't notify President McKinley's descendants, who find this outrageous."[34] Presidential candidate Donald Trump vowed to reverse the decision if elected, calling it a "great insult to Ohio".[35] While all 13 Ohio Republican members of Congress signed a letter denouncing the "troubling" action of the Obama administration, complaining that "William McKinley’s legacy has been tarnished by a political stunt", not all the state's elected Republicans agreed: Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted said "I wouldn’t want people from Alaska telling me what things in Ohio should be. So I guess we shouldn’t tell people from Alaska what they should do in their own state."[36]

In February 2015, the senior Alaskan Senator, Lisa Murkowski, said: "There's a lot of things in Ohio that are already named after McKinley. This is no affront to our former president; this is all about ensuring that respect for the land and respect for the native people of the region is afforded."[37] Ohio native and junior Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan said he was "gratified" that President Obama changed the name.[3] Alaska Governor Bill Walker said, "Alaska's place names should reflect and respect the rich cultural history of our state, and officially recognizing the name Denali does just that."[37] On August 30, 2015, speaking from Denali's Ruth Glacier, Senator Murkowski said, "For centuries, Alaskans have known this majestic mountain as the 'Great One'. Today we are honored to be able to officially recognize the mountain as Denali. I'd like to thank the President for working with us to achieve this significant change to show honor, respect and gratitude to the Athabascan people of Alaska."[37][38]

Obama used the first week of September 2015 on a "climate-change focused" visit, which he also used to announce the renaming of the mountain. On September 6, 2015, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin criticized Obama's Alaskan visit and also voiced her opposition to the name change: "The name of the national park was changed to Denali some years ago. So I thought that was good enough. We could keep McKinley as the highest peak on the North American continent. We could keep that name McKinley."[6]


  1. ^ a b c Kari, James; Fall, James A.; Pete, Shem; Alex, Mike (Aug 1, 2003). Shem Pete's Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena'ina. Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska Press. pp. 211–213. ISBN 9781889963570. Retrieved September 1, 2015. 
  2. ^ Glum, Julia (August 31, 2015). "What Does Denali Mean? Mount McKinley's New Name Traditionally Defined As 'The High One'". International Business Times. Retrieved September 1, 2015. [unreliable source?]
  3. ^ a b c James Kari of the Alaska Native Language Center writes in Shem Pete's Alaska, the "name 'Denali' is based upon the Koyukon place name as used by the people north of the mountain." Kari explains that "the name 'Denali' does not mean 'The Great One,' as is commonly cited, but is instead based upon this verb theme meaning 'high' or 'tall.'" Martinson, Erica (August 30, 2015). "McKinley no more: North America's tallest peak to be renamed Denali". Alaska Dispatch News. Retrieved September 1, 2015. 
  4. ^ a b U.S. Department of the Interior/Sally Jewell (August 28, 2015). "Order No. 3337: Change of the Name of Mount McKinley to Denali" (PDF) (Press release). U.S. Department of the Interior. Retrieved August 31, 2015. 
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