The real question is this: Why was it named Mount McKinley in the first place?
Apparently, North America’s highest peak was named by gold prospector William Dickey in honor of William McKinley, who had just been nominated for the presidency in 1896. McKinley supported a gold standard for the United States Treasury, and when you are a gold prospector, that is worthy of your support. So Dickey named the 20,310-foot Alaskan mountain in honor of McKinley, happily ignoring the fact that the presidential candidate apparently never visited Alaska or acknowledged the mountain in any way.
Well, the name stuck. And when McKinley was elected president, elected a second time, and then assassinated early in his second term, sentiment arose suggesting he should be honored in some fashion. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed a law establishing Mount McKinley National Park and formally establishing the name of the mountain.
All of this is relevant as President Barack Obama announced last week that he has instructed the U.S. Department of the Interior to change the name of the mountain to Denali, which is what the Athabaskans — Alaskan natives — called it for centuries before William McKinley ever pondered the gold standard. Given the way things work in the nation’s capital, this has raised some hackles. “Mount McKinley … has held the name of our nation’s 25th president for over 100 years,” Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, said. “This landmark is a testament to his countless years of service to our country.”
Which, of course, is an absurd argument. The mountain was known as Denali for much longer than 100 years, a fact long acknowledged by Alaskans. In 1975, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name to its original and petitioned the federal government to do the same. That petition has been supported by members of the state’s congressional delegation, so it is not as though Obama’s decision was pulled out of oxygen-depleted air.
It should be noted that in at least one instance, this decision has led to a comical fit of partisan buffoonery. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, said, “I’m certain (Obama) didn’t notify President McKinley’s descendants, who find this outrageous.” Never mind that McKinley’s two daughters died in childhood and he has no descendants. The lesson, it seems, is that even if Obama issued a resolution in favor of Mother’s Day, Republicans would complain.
Anyway, the kerfuffle over the naming and renaming of Mount Denali has brought up some interesting discussions about honoring native traditions and about the nature of how we name natural landmarks such as rivers, lakes and mountains. Names help us navigate the world around us, providing common reference points, but they are not etched in stone.
The Multnomah Tribe used the name Wy’east for what we call Mount Hood, which was chosen in honor of a British admiral; the Wy’east name lives on in the form of a middle school in the Evergreen district. Mount St. Helens was known as Lawetlat’la to the local Cowlitz people, and as Loowit to the Klickitat, but received an English name in honor of a British diplomat. Even Mount Rainier was named for a British admiral.
Any eventual name changes should require popular support, such as in evidence with the renaming of Mount Denali. But it seems as though landmarks throughout the Northwest could have more meaningful monikers than those of long-forgotten Britons or, in the case of Mount McKinley, barely remembered presidents.