Denali's Name Change

Denali's Name Change
The tallest mountain peak in North America calls Alaska home. With an elevation of 20,310 feet above sea level, Denali has held that designation for nearly a century, but people remain confused over its name. Not so surprising when you realize the name Denali, although in common use in Alaska for decades, was not the legally recognized name of the mountain until 2015. The cornerstone of Denali National Park, the mountain’s name involves a debate over a hundred years in the making.

The first recorded sighting of what would come to be known as the Alaska Range by a non-native, was in 1794 when early explorer John Vancouver referred to it in his journals as “stupendous snow mountains.” Of the five Athabaskan tribes surrounding Denali, all had similar names for it, translating into English as “the tall one”, “big one” and “mountain-big”. The actual word Denali comes from the Koyukon word “deenaalee” and translates as “The Great One”.

In the late 1800’s, gold prospectors along the Yukon River had their own names for the mountain, favorites including “Densmore Peak” (named after a prospector) and “Mt. McKinley”, after the President of the US at that time. A gold prospector working the Yukon in 1897 returned to his home in New York and wrote a newspaper article, referring to the mountain as “Mt. McKinley”, and the name stuck. The name steadily gained popularity, especially after President McKinley was assassinated in 1901.

In spite of the obvious history and the fact that the people who lived in Alaska knew the mountain as Denali “The Great One”; when the national park was designated into law and the mountain officially named on February 26, 1917, the decision was made to name the mountain Mt. McKinley and the park “Mt. McKinley National Park” – after a president who had never set foot on Alaskan soil, much less seen the mountain. This decision raised huge debates, but the name held and was passed into law.

Then again, Federal laws created in far-away Washington didn’t hold much regard thousands of miles away in Alaska, where Athabaskans did not name places after people and found no way to translate “McKinley” into anything they understood. For them and the settlers who came to call Alaska home over the following decades, the mountain remained Denali.

Debate over the name continued, and in 1975, the State of Alaska itself petitioned the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to officially change the name of Mt. McKinley back to its original historic name of Denali. It seems that Alaskans had never accepted the name foisted upon the mountain by the US Government and were still calling it Denali anyway. Unfortunately, congressional delegations from President McKinley’s home state of Ohio were able to block these and other efforts by Alaskan politicians for over forty years.

In 1980, a bit of a compromise was reached and the national park surrounding [then] Mt. McKinley was re-named Denali National Park and Preserve. It was a start, and gave Alaskans hope that a name change for the mountain itself could still be achieved.

A side note: I moved to Alaska in 1997 and remember telling someone I looked forward to visiting Mt. McKinley. I was given a mildly reproving look and told that since I now called Alaska home, I should know that only tourists called the mountain Mt. McKinley. It is Denali. It is not called “Mt. Denali” or “Denali Mountain”. It is simply Denali.

Finally, in 2015, using a long-ignored 1947 law enabling the Secretary of Interior to step in when the SUBGN “does not act within a reasonable time”, [then] Secretary Sally Jewell was able to push through legislation in Alaska’s favor and officially restored the name Denali.

Taking advantage of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary celebration in 2015, the change became official and the highest peak in North America once again bore the name its Athabaskan ancestors had given it; DENALI.

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