Why Is Mt. McKinley Being Renamed Denali? Alaskans Are Likely Celebrating The Change

At 20,237 feet high, Mount McKinley is the tallest mountain in North America, making it an important landmark for the United States and Alaska, in particular. The White House announced Sunday that Mount McKinley will be renamed as Denali, a name that better reflects the Native Alaskan culture. As it turns out, this probably should have been done a long time ago.

In many ways, the name change shouldn't be a surprise. Mount McKinley is part of Denali National Park and Preserve, which covers more than 6 million acres of interior Alaska. The park was renamed from Mount McKinley National Park in 1980. The mountain has been known as Denali in Alaska at least since that time, with many people interchangeably calling it McKinley and Denali. Many Natives, though, have recognized the name Denali throughout history.

Denali means "the great one" in Athabaskan, a Native Alaskan language. The native populations originally named the mountain Denali, but that name didn't stick around in an official capacity for very long. In 1889, the mountain was named Densmore's Mountain after prospector Frank Densmore. Soon after, in 1896, another prospector, William Dickey, named the mountain Mount McKinley in an attempt to bolster support for President William McKinley, who was running for the office at the time. The federal government adopted the name when it created Mount McKinley National Park in 1917.

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The name of the mountain has remained controversial for decades. Many local residents, including Native Alaskans, have always referred to it as Denali. To these groups, the name change of the park in 1980 was a win for the local culture. In fact, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names has previously tried to change the name of the mountain, but its efforts were blocked by politicians in Washington.

There's also an argument for why the mountain shouldn't be named after McKinley: He never visited the mountain or the national park, even after winning election. Sure, not all presidents make it out to Alaska, but if people name the tallest mountain on the continent after you, it would probably be nice for you to visit.

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The fight against the name change has largely been led by politicians from Ohio, where McKinley was from. The Ohio congressional delegation has repeatedly introduced bills to require the mountain to remain named McKinley, preventing Alaskan officials from renaming it.

Now, the White House has taken the issue into its own hands. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell has signed an order that officially changes the name to Denali, and the White House has said that President Obama will announce the change while he's in Alaska later this week to discuss environmental policy.

With this new recognition, the mountain will be referred to as Denali in all official capacities, including on all official maps. It has been a long time coming, but the new (and original) name will better reflect the history and culture of the Native Alaskans and local residents.

Image: Bob Snyder/Flickr (1)