- On Sunday, the Obama administration announced that the peak formerly known as Mount McKinley will henceforth be known as "Denali," its traditional Native Alaskan name.
- The mountain was officially named after President William McKinley in 1917, a gesture originally proposed by an Alaska gold prospector in recognition of McKinley's support for the gold standard.
- The Denali name is widely supported by Alaskans regardless of ethnicity.
- Politicians from McKinley's home state of Ohio are leading the opposition to the change.
The origins of "Mount McKinley"
The area around the mountain is inhabited by the Koyukon people, an Athabascan-speaking group of native Alaskans. Their traditional name for the mountain is Denali, or "tall," fitting for the tallest peak in North America. When Alaska was under Russian rule, the mountain was known as Bolshaya Gora — "big mountain" — essentially a Russian translation of "Denali."
In the 1880s and 1890s, white mountaineers briefly began referring to the mountain as Densmore's Mountain, after Frank Densmore, the first white explorer to reach the base of the mountain.
Then, in 1896, came the confluence of two events. First there was a US presidential campaign dominated by a disagreement between William McKinley, who supported tying the value of the US dollar to gold, and William Jennings Bryan, who supported providing monetary stimulus by minting silver-backed dollars. Second was the beginning of the Klondike Gold Rush, prompted by the discover of gold reserves in Alaska. Gold prospectors were enthusiastic about the McKinley campaign, and began to informally call the mountain McKinley.
McKinley won the election, and natural gold discoveries (in Alaska and elsewhere) provided monetary stimulus and turned McKinley's administration into a success. He was reelected, but then assassinated in 1901 in Buffalo. In 1917, the Wilson administration officially signed the Mount McKinley National Park Act, which, among other things, changed the official name of the mountain.
Native Alaskans never appreciated the Colonial rewriting of the name of their mountain. The fact that it was named after a white man who had nothing to do with the mountain — indeed, who had never so much as been to Alaska — added insult to injury. Alaska politicians have long been pushing for a renaming, and Obama obliged them in advance of an official presidential visit to the state.
A backlash from Ohio
It seems difficult to believe that any voters in Ohio actually care about this, but for a generation now the Ohio congressional delegation has appointed itself the stewards of the "Mount McKinley" name on the grounds that McKinley is from Ohio.
Sen. Robert Portman led the charge on Twitter:
I'm disappointed with the Administration's decision to change the name of Mt. McKinley in Alaska (1/5)— Rob Portman (@senrobportman) August 31, 2015
Pres McKinley was a proud Ohioan, and the mountain was named after him, as a way to remember his rich legacy after his assassination (2/5)— Rob Portman (@senrobportman) August 31, 2015
The naming of the mountain has been a topic of discussion in Congress for many years (3/5)— Rob Portman (@senrobportman) August 31, 2015
This decision by the Administration is yet another example of the President going around Congress (4/5)— Rob Portman (@senrobportman) August 31, 2015
I urge Admin 2 work w/ me 2 find alternative ways 2 preserve McKinley's legacy somewhere else in the natl park that once bore his name (5/5)— Rob Portman (@senrobportman) August 31, 2015
House Speaker John Boehner is also an Ohioan and reacted angrily to the news, proclaiming himself "deeply disappointed" with this slight to McKinley's legacy.