You may have heard that Mount McKinley is now officially named Denali. Let me explain why this is such a big deal to Alaskans.
The mountain had been called several names by Alaska Natives long before Russians or Europeans ever got here. The most common local name was the Koyukon Athabascan name Denali, usually translated as the high one or tall one. Then William Dickey, an American prospector, named it after William McKinley in 1896 when he heard McKinley was nominated for President, to show his support for the gold standard. From that time on, some called the mountain Mt. McKinley and some Denali, but Denali was commonly used. By the time the Charles Sheldon was in the area shortly after the turn of the century, that’s the name he was told, and what he called it. He wanted to call his proposed national park Denali, but he didn’t win that battle.
For generations, the United States’ official name was Mt. McKinley for both the mountain and the park. By the time I came to Alaska in the 1960s, some people called the mountain McKinley but others used Denali, and over the years, Denali has become the preferred name for many Alaskans. In 1980, when the park was expanded, its new name became Denali National Park and Preserve, but Congress didn’t change the name of the mountain. Over many congressional terms, Alaskan senators or representatives have introduced bills to rename the mountain, and Ohio congressmen have shot them down to honor their famous fellow Ohioan.
Then, on August 30, 2015, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced that she signed an order to rename the mountain Denali. Apparently, she has that right from a 1947 federal law that allows her to make changes through the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. Most Alaskans are thrilled. A few will need to ponder what the change means to them—will they replace all those Mt. McKinley tourist t-shirts and business names with Denali ones?