The Ancient Name for the Tallest Mountain in North America

What’s the big deal about Denali?

Denali is the tallest mountain in North America. From its base to its peak, it rises 18,000 feet. Over the past century, the naming of this site has been awkward, to say the least. With the recent act from the US Secretary of the Interior, the name just became a lot simpler.

Let’s talk about how confusing the name has been.

  • The mountain has long been called Denali by the native people who inhabit the area.
  • In 1896, Mount McKinley was suggested and used unofficially.
  • In 1917, Congress and President Woodrow Wilson declared the area as Mount McKinley National Park. Many Alaskans continued to use the name Denali.
  • In 1975, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name back to Denali. The Alaskan legislature and governor petition the United States government to change the name on the national level. (So at this point, the mount two names: Mount McKinley at the federal level, and Denali at the state level.)
  • In 1980, President Jimmy Carter expands the McKinley National Park and renames it to Denali National Park and Preserve(At this point, the mount is still called McKinley by the US government, Denali by the Alaskan government, and is located in the Denali National Park.)
  • And here we are in 2015. President Barack Obama announced that the Secretary of the Interior has issued an act renaming the mountain Denali.
  • So the name of the peak is Denali and it’s located in Denali National Park and Preserve.

Before this land was part of the United States, the Native people in Alaska called the mountain Denali (or variations of that name) for centuries. The name translates into English as “the great one” from the Athabascan language.

So how did it change to Mount McKinley? During the presidential election of 1896, a man prospecting for gold on the mountain suggested naming it after presidential candidate William McKinley.

Let’s review a few facts about President William McKinley.

  • He’s from Ohio, not Alaska.
  • McKinley never visited Denali.
  • Alaska was not a state in 1896 (that came 63 years later).

What’s in a name? National Geographic had an internal policy for referring to the moutain.  The Daily Show with Jon Stewart aired a segment about the dispute, and Conor Oberst name-drops Denali in his protest song Roosevelt Room.

You may also like...

Add a Comment