Blogs > Jim Loewen > The Tallest Mountain – The Silliest Naming – Reversed on August 31, 2015

Sep 1, 2015

The Tallest Mountain – The Silliest Naming – Reversed on August 31, 2015

tags: Denali,Mt. McKinley

Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me.

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Since people probably reached Alaska before any other part of the Western Hemisphere, they probably named North America's tallest mountain thousands of years ago. They didn't call it Mt. McKinley.

Replacing Native American names with those of European Americans is a form of cultural imperialism. The practice declares that the new rulers of the landscape can afford to ignore what Native names mean and connote in favor of new names that typically have no resonance with what is named.

The mountain is Denali, "the great one." It never deserved to be named for William McKinley, who was never "the great one."

Low-profile conflicts have raged for many years between those who want to change the names of localities and geographic features back to their original Native names and those who want them to be named for European American people, towns, or words. To some degree this is a contest between Native Americans and European Americans, but European Americans are usually found on both sides of the arguments. The battles might also be characterized as between traditionalists and those desiring change, except that both parties claim tradition on their side. Denali, or Mount McKinley, dramatically embodied these disputes about names all across America, not only because it is such a dramatic place but also because the controversy at Denali has gone on for more than 40 years.

William A. Dickey named the peak, the tallest point in North America, Mount McKinley in 1896. Why he got to name it is hard to fathom. Dickey had come to Alaska spurred by discoveries of gold in Cook Inlet. With three companions, he made it to Talkeetna and saw Denali, "the great one" in the language of the nearby Tanaina Indians. According to C. H. Merriam, testifying before the U. S. Geographical Board in 1917, "The right of the discoverer to name geographical features has never been questioned," but Dickey was no discoverer. People had discovered the huge mountain thousands of years earlier. Even if only white people "discover," Russians saw it in the 1770s or 1780s and named it Bulshaia Gora, "big mountain." Even if only English-speaking white people "discover," British Captain George Vancouver saw Denali in 1794. Dickey was not even the first white American to see it; other Americans had preceded him by a quarter century.

 Dickey had no serious reason to name the mountain as he did. William McKinley had not yet been martyred when he received the honor; indeed, he had not even been elected president. Nor had McKinley ever been to the mountain or even to Alaska. William Dickey favored conservative fiscal policies, while most people in the West wanted to expand the amount of money in circulation by minting more silver coins and certificates. Dickey was irritated by arguments he had lost with "free silver" partisans on his trip and decided to retaliate by naming Denali after the gold-standard champion.

"The original naming was little more than a joke," according to George R. Stewart, author of American Place-Names. From the first, some people preferred the native name, and Dickey's frivolous reason for choosing McKinley gave them ammunition. Nevertheless, probably because he wrote about his trip in the New York Sun, Dickey's choice began to catch on. McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan in 1896, so at least the mountain turned out to be named after a president, and, when McKinley was shot in Buffalo in 1901, after a martyred president.

Today, however, many Americans consider the Native name more melodious and object to "McKinley" on aesthetic grounds — as if the Mississippi River had been renamed for, say, Zachary Taylor. Others support Native efforts to gain more acceptance, including recognition on the landscape. "It's time we listened to the Native people of Alaska," declared Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska back in 1991. "This mountain is the largest in North America. It was named by the Natives long before we arrived."

Nationally, a lone congressman from Ohio prevented the renaming of the mountain for decades. Rep. Ralph Regula from Canton, William McKinley's home town, found a way to block any change. His aide told me, back in 1997, "The Board of Geographic Names won't change names so long as legislation on the subject is pending. Congressman Regula always has legislation pending." The legislation never got anywhere, but it sufficed to prevent action by the Board.

In 1975, Regula blocked a compromise proposed by the Alaska legislature to name the mountain Denali and leave the national park named for McKinley. Five years later the National Park Service agreed to a compromise Regula couldn't block: it changed the name of Mount McKinley National Park to Denali National Park, but the mountain stayed Mount McKinley. This resolution proved unstable, however. Finding its Native lobby more persuasive than Ohio's McKinley lobby, Alaska changed its name for the mountain to Denali, relegating the 25th president to the parenthetical statement, "(also known as Mt. McKinley)."

When the Board on Geographic Names was considering a proposal renaming the mountain in 1977, Congressman Regula testified, "This action would be an insult to the memory of Pres. McKinley and to the people of my District and the nation who are so proud of his heritage," But Americans aren't! That's the problem: most Americans don't rank William McKinley very high in the pantheon of presidents. They remember him, if at all, as a creation of political boss Mark Hanna, beholden to big business, and addicted to high tariffs. He also got us bogged down in a seemingly endless colonial war in the Philippines. Such facts did not deter Regula, who portrayed McKinley as "a champion of the working class" and credited him for "settlement of the long-standing Spanish-American conflict." McKinley was not a proponent of war with Spain but gave in to the war fervor in late April, 1898. That war lasted only three months and was allegedly anti-colonialist. America’s next war, against the Philippines, lasted until Teddy Roosevelt declared victory on July 4, 1902. As in Iraq today, that declaration proved premature; hostilities continued for eleven more years.

Naturally, the congressman's office claimed that higher principles, not mere local pride, motivated Regula to block renaming the mountain. "The congressman feels that a lot of money goes into maps," emphasized aide Barbara Wainman, "and names shouldn't be changed lightly." Moreover, she noted, if they win Denali, Native groups will want to change other names.

On that last point, Wainman is right. Native groups do want to change other names all across the American landscape. American Indians are winning some of these battles. Memphis renamed DeSoto Bluff "Chickasaw Heritage State Park." "Custer's Last Stand" is now "The Little Bighorn Battlefield." The U.S. Board on Geographic Names adopted a policy in 1990 to favor names derived from American Indian, Inuit, and Polynesian languages.

The original version of this essay was the lead geographic chapter in my book, Lies Across America, which came out in 1999. I ended it, “Eventually Natives will outlast Ralph Regula and rename Denali.” Now that day has come. Regula retired in 2009, after 36 years in Congress. Other Ohio Congressmen continued their opposition to a name change, however. Today, John Boehner manifested the usual Ohio Republican opposition to the announced name change. His district lies considerably west of Regula’s, but hey, McKinley was a Republican and from Ohio, so he must be supported.

It remains to be seen whether Boehner can undo today’s action by the Department of the Interior, especially since Republican leaders from Alaska support the original name, Denali, over McKinley.

Copyright James W. Loewen

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