Original Native Alaskan Name for America’s Highest Peak Restored, Denali

The view of Denali from the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.
The view of Denali from the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.

I had the pleasure of attending the University of Alaska Fairbanks after I graduated from high school. I majored in Social Work and minored in Justice; I was in the Class of 1994. I am a proud Nanook Alumni. It was especially satisfying to learn that the White House restored Denali’s original Native Alaskan name. To me it was a sign of great respect for the indigenous people of Alaska.

UAF is an impressive school. I decided to attend after learning that it was listed as one of the most affordable schools with the best education. It far exceeded my expectations and not only did I get a great education but I learned about Alaska and the Native Alaskans. It was part of the UAF Social Work curriculum and enhanced my perspective profoundly. It was an honor to learn about both.

The things I learned about the Native Alaskan culture both fascinated me and made me sad. At the time I was attending, there was a effort amongst the indigenous people to preserve their heritage, their language, and their way of life. They were finding their voices after years of believing that they had to assimilate with the ‘white man’ in order to be successful.

After learning that Denali was re-named after President William McKinley from Ohio who had absolutely nothing to do with Alaska, I was stunned. In a statement, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell reminded us that “President McKinley never visited, nor did he have any significant historical connection to, the mountain or to Alaska.” As an American, I just assumed there was a good reason they renamed the mountain after him.

If this was an argument about a mountain in Ohio named after him (I’m not sure if they have any) then I would understand some of the lawmaker’s outrage. But to strip the the tallest mountain in America of its original Native Alaskan name for a man who never lived in Alaska or had anything to do with it, is disrespectful. I do believe that we should honor President McKinley but not in Alaska.

I had the pleasure of viewing Denali from the UAF campus on all those clear days for three years. It was awe inspiring to say the least. After learning about the perils of the Native Alaskan culture, I think this is a great step towards honoring their history and way of life. Their way of life really touched me while living in Alaska because they show a great respect for the land and their elders. They named Denali (which means either ‘The High One’ or ‘The Great One’) because it’s their mountain and always has been.

Related Links:
What Does Denali Mean? Mount McKinley’s New Name Traditionally Defined As ‘The High One’
Denali or McKinley? How a 19th century political ‘joke’ turned into a 119-year-long debate
Mt. McKinley to Denali: How A Mountain’s Renaming Got Tied Up in Politics
White House renames Mount McKinley as Denali on eve of trip
Ohio delegation blasts Mount McKinley name change

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