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Denali naming dispute

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Title: Denali naming dispute  
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Subject: Denali, Denali National Park and Preserve, History of Alaska
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Denali naming dispute

The mountain in question
Flag of Alaska
History of Alaska
Russian America (1733–1867)
Department of Alaska (1867–1884)
District of Alaska (1884–1912)
Territory of Alaska (1912–1959)
State of Alaska (1959–present)
Other topics

There is a dispute over the name of the mountain listed by the United States Board on Geographic Names as "Mount McKinley" and by the Alaska Board of Geographic Names as "Denali", located in Alaska as the centerpiece of Denali National Park and Preserve. Alaska has requested that the mountain be recognized as "Denali," meaning "the great one" in the Athabaskan languages of the Alaska Natives living around the mountain, which is the common name in Alaska. Attempts by Alaska to have Mount McKinley's name changed by the federal government have been blocked by members of the congressional delegation from Ohio, the homestate of mountain namesake William McKinley.

Historical names

Numerous native peoples of the area had their own names for this prominent peak. The local Koyukon Athabaskan name for the mountain, the name used by the Native Americans with access to the flanks of the mountain (living in the Yukon, Tanana and Kuskokwim basins), is Dinale or Denali or ).[1] To the South the Dena’ina people in the Susitna river valley used the name Dghelay Ka’a (anglicized as Doleika or Traleika in Traleika Glacier), meaning "the big mountain".[2][3]

The historical first European sighting of Mount McKinley took place on May 6, 1794, when Knik Arm of the Cook Inlet and mentioned “distant stupendous mountains” in his journal. However, he uncharacteristically left the mountain unnamed. The mountain is first named on a map by Ferdinand von Wrangell in 1839; the names Tschigmit and Tenada correspond to the locations of Mount Foraker and Mount McKinley, respectively. Von Wrangell had been chief administrator of the Russian settlements in North America from 1829–1835.[3]

During the Russian ownership of Alaska, the common name for the mountain was Bolshaya Gora (Большая Гора, "big mountain" in Russian), which is the Russian translation of Denali.[4]

McKinley naming

The first English name applied to the peak was Densmore’s Mountain or Densmore's Peak, for the gold prospector Frank Densmore who in 1889 had fervently praised the mountain’s majesty; however, the name persevered only locally and informally.[1] That changed when William Dickey, a New Hampshire-born Seattleite who had been digging for gold in the sands of the Susitna River, wrote, after his return to the lower states, an account in the New York Sun that appeared on January 24, 1897.[5] Dickey wrote, “We named our great peak Mount McKinley, after William McKinley of Ohio, who had been nominated for the Presidency."[5] By most accounts, the naming was politically driven; Dickey had met many silver miners who zealously promoted Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan's ideal of a silver standard, inspiring him to retaliate by naming the mountain after a strong proponent of the gold standard.[5]

Alaska Board of Geographic Names attempts to change name

Ohio congressman Ralph Regula prevented opposition from renaming McKinley from 1975 to 2009

Mount McKinley is commonly referred to by its Koyukon Athabaskan name Denali, especially by Alaskans, mountaineers, and Alaska Natives. In 1975, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of mountain to Denali[6] and, at Governor Jay Hammond's behest, the Alaska Legislature officially requested that the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, the federal governmental body responsible for naming geographic features in the United States, change the name of the mountain from Mount McKinley to "Mount Denali."[7]

Action by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names was staved off by the determined political maneuvering of Ohio congressman Ralph Regula, whose district includes Canton, where McKinley spent much of his life.[8][9] At first, Board on Geographic Names consideration was delayed by resistance from Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton, under whose purview the Board on Geographic Names fell, as he personally did not favor a change of the mountain's name.[7] Later, in 1977, with Secretary Morton no longer at the helm of the Department of the Interior, the Board on Geographic Names again prepared to consider the name change, but Congressman Regula gathered signatures from every member of the Ohio congressional delegation warning against renaming Mount McKinley and the Board on Geographic Names again held off on making a ruling.[5][7] On December 2, 1980, with President Jimmy Carter's signing of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), McKinley National Park — which had been created on February 26, 1917[5] — was incorporated into a larger protected area named Denali National Park and Preserve.[10] Naming the new, larger park Denali while retaining the name Mount McKinley for the actual mountain was thought to be a compromise by many "Mount McKinley" partisans.[10][11] However, "Denali" advocates, including Alaska Congressman Don Young, vehemently disagree that the 1980 action constitutes a real compromise and instead argue that naming the mountain and park by different names only creates confusion.[11][12] While the Board on Geographic Names was originally set to make a ruling on December 10, 1980, with the passage of ANILCA on December 2, the Board on Geographic Names opted to defer their ruling.[7][13]

The following year, Congressman Regula devised a new tactic to support the Mount McKinley name. Capitalizing on a Board on Geographic Names policy[14] that states the Board cannot consider any name-change proposal if congressional legislation relating to that name is pending, Regula began a biennial legislative tradition of either introducing language into Interior Department appropriation bills or introducing a standalone bill that states that the name of Mount McKinley shall not be changed.[7][15] This effectively killed the Denali name-change proposal pending with the Board on Geographic Names.[7]

Recent activity

In 2009, following the retirement of Congressman Regula, interest in renaming the mountain renewed. Alaska State Representative Scott Kawasaki sponsored Alaska House Joint Resolution 15, which urges the U.S. Congress to rename the mountain Denali.[16] Despite efforts in Alaska, U.S. Representatives Betty Sutton and Tim Ryan, both of Ohio, have assumed Regula's role as congressional guardians of the Mount McKinley name and introduced H.R. 229 which reads: "Notwithstanding any other authority of law, the mountain located 63 degrees 04 minutes 12 seconds north, by 151 degrees 00 minutes 18 seconds west shall continue to be named and referred to for all purposes as Mount McKinley."[17]


  1. ^ a b "Mount McKinley".  
  2. ^ Kari, James. 1981. Native names celebrate the mountain's grandeur. Now in the North, February.
  3. ^ a b Fred Beckey Mount McKinley: Icy Crown of North America (Mountaineers Books 1993, paper 1999, ISBN 0-89886-646-4)
  4. ^ Dictionary of Alaska Place Names (U.S. Dept. of Interior, 1976) at page 610.
  5. ^ a b c d e Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Mount McKinley Name Change Gets New Wave of Support
  6. ^ "Interior Alaska Subarea Contingency Plan". Alaska Department of Commerce. April 2007. p. B-86. Retrieved Jan 14, 2011. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f Norris, Frank. Crown Jewel of the North: An Administrative History of Denali National Park and Preserve, Volume I. 2006. Chapter 8, “New Highway Impacts and the Park Expansion Process.”
  8. ^ "Alaska's Majestic Mountain".  
  9. ^ "New effort to rename mountain Denali".  
  10. ^ a b The Bryan Times: "Mount McKinley Remains Named Mount McKinley"
  11. ^ a b Seattle Times: "Mount McKinley Moniker Debated"
  12. ^ Juneau Empire: "Battle Renewed over McKinley's Name"
  13. ^ The New York Times: "What's in a name." November 16, 1980
  14. ^ U.S. Board on Geographic Names. [ Principles, Policies, and Procedures]. “Policy I: Names Being Considered By Congress.” Page 18
  15. ^ Loewen, James. Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong. Pages 37-40.
  16. ^ Delbridge, Rena (February 10, 2009). "Fairbanks lawmaker wants to rename Mt. McKinley".  
  17. ^ H.R. 229.
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