Renaming Mount McKinley "Denali" Is A Show Of Respect For Indigenous Communities That's Been A Long Time Coming
Over the weekend, President Obama announced his decision to change the name of Alaska’s Mt. McKinley back to it’s original Native Alaskan title, Denali. And it only took hours before the first wave of criticism began rolling in. Conservatives were outraged by what they perceived as a political move, and immediately began blasting the name change. Ohio residents who felt snubbed by the removal of Ohio-born President William McKinley’s name from a national landmark also took to social media to express their displeasure, citing the late president’s service during the Civil War as reason to leave the mountain’s title intact. While the name change has made plenty of people angry, it’s a bold and necessary move for a country that desperately needs to show more respect for its indigenous people.
Given the pattern of unfriendly behavior toward the overall native population in recent years, the sudden shift back to "Denali" won't wipe the slate clean. But it's definitely an important step toward greater change down the road.
“The mountain was originally named after President William McKinley of Ohio, but President McKinley never visited, nor did he have any significant historical connection to, the mountain or to Alaska,” explained Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in a statement on Sunday. “With our own sense of reverence for this place, we are officially renaming the mountain Denali in recognition of the traditions of Alaska Natives and the strong support of the people of Alaska.”
But House Speaker John Boehner criticized the move, saying that he was “deeply disappointed” in the decision in a statement on Monday. Explained Boehner:
There is a reason President McKinley’s name has served atop the highest peak in North America for more than 100 years, and that is because it is a testament to his great legacy. McKinley served our country with distinction during the Civil War as a member of the Army. He made a difference for his constituents and his state as a member of the House of Representatives and as Governor of the great state of Ohio. And he led this nation to prosperity and victory in the Spanish-American War as the 25th President of the United States. I’m deeply disappointed in this decision.
Echoing Boehner’s words, several of the Speaker’s fellow Republicans also lambasted the administration’s decision to rename the mountain. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman took to Twitter to explain that “the mountain was named after [McKinley], as a way to remember his rich legacy after his assassination,” and that the change was yet “another example of the President going around Congress."
However, the problem with those statements is obvious. While Portman and Boehner were both correct in their assertions that McKinley had served in the U.S. Civil War, and that the mountain had been named officially in his honor, they failed to mention that the initial suggestion that led to the name “Mt. McKinley” was actually made by a gold prospector who had unofficially declared the change some years earlier in 1896, after then-presidential candidate McKinley had expressed support for the gold standard. It was more of a mutual back-scratch than anything else. And while many at the time considered McKinley to be something of a war hero, historical records later revealed that he wasn’t exactly the shining example of patriotic excellence everyone assumed.
McKinley’s own history was something of a tangled web when it came down to foreign policy and ingrained racism. In 1898, at the close of the Spanish-American War, McKinley ordered American troops to overtake the vulnerable Philippines in an attempt to annex them and, according to his own words, “Christianize” them to his and his generals’ liking. In an interview in The Christian Advocate in 1903, McKinley said,
… We could not leave them to themselves—they were unfit for self-government—and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.
In the melee that followed, some American troops were then instructed by their commanding officers to “kill everyone over [the age of] 10,” to set homes on fire, and to then round up the thousands of survivors into internment-camp-type “protection zones” for their own good. Any shine that may have been left on McKinley’s presidency was cancelled out when news later broke of the long massacre.
Changing the name of the mountain from "Mt. McKinley" back to its Native Alaskan moniker, “Denali,” signals not only a shift in perception by the non-native population in the United States, but also a larger move toward resolution. It’s a big deal, considering the imperialistic inclinations of the man whom the mountain was named after, and the similarly racist and discriminatory attitudes to which modern-day indigenous groups are subjected on a regular basis.
There's a pattern of abusive behavior toward the indigenous people of this country, which includes drawn-out spats over the names of professional football teams, the scores of “Indian-themed” parties circulating the Greek communities on college campuses across the nation, the cultural appropriation of Native American imagery and customs within the fashion world, and the outright erasure of Native Alaskan voices in discussions over conservation and Arctic drilling (here, even the left and President Obama himself are partially guilty of not taking indigenous opinions into consideration). A little social reverence and deference couldn’t hurt.
Instead of ranting about this name change (or rather, the restoration of the mountain's original name), Americans everywhere should be celebrating the move as the first in a long line of conciliatory gestures toward communities that are so often ignored. And with the slow rise of the Native Lives Matter movement, which is meant to raise awareness of the fact that Native Americans are killed by law enforcement at a higher rate than any other group and the impoverished northern indigenous tribes who are so routinely ignored, it’s about time things started to change for the better.
“For centuries, Alaskans have known this majestic mountain as the ‘Great One,’ [and] today we are honored to be able to officially recognize the mountain as Denali,” wrote Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in a statement on Facebook on Sunday. “I’d like to thank the President for working with us to achieve this significant change to show honor, respect, and gratitude to the Athabascan people of Alaska.”