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Obama's decision on Denali strikes a blow for decolonization and respect

  • Author: Alan Boraas
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published September 6, 2015

President Barack Obama's action to re-institute the Alaska Native name of Denali to North America's tallest peak is an act of decolonization. Decolonization refers to actions that reverse the negative effects of colonization.

A symbolic, but nonetheless meaningful, part of colonization was naming, or more accurately, renaming. Native names were either Anglicized or ignored. Many places were given names of the heroes of Manifest Destiny or of places immigrants were from. Hero names reflect the values of the conquerors through association with the namesake politicians and generals. Names from the mostly European homelands indicate the transfer of cultural tradition from the Old World to the New, wiping out an indigenous overlay to the landscape. In both cases an act of renaming makes a statement of cultural ownership. To many Native Americans, renaming a place sends a clear message: "We get to name this river, mountain, or lake and you can't do anything about it. We get our name on the map."

Naming is neither quaint nor benign. Renaming is colonialism.

Native Alaskans seldom named places after individuals. Most of the names are descriptive of the geographic feature or of activities associated with the place. On the Kenai Peninsula "Nanchish" is the first point of land on Tustumena Lake and means "our nose" because the feature resembles a nose. Shk'ituk't is the name for the village at Kenai because the bluff was a good hill to slide down in winter; it means, "We slide down on snow or ice place."

Names based on features or activities formed part of the cognitive map Dena'ina had of their territory. It was probably the same for most Native Alaskans. It is much harder to know where you are if the places are named the equivalent of, say, Smith Lake or Jones Creek. Today, Dena'ina and likely other rural Native Alaskans laugh when you ask whether they need a GPS to get around. They have their territory in their heads. Many have it in their souls.

America's Achilles heel of identity rests on two dark episodes of our history: Slavery and the treatment of Native Americans. We as a nation have not resolved the historic trauma that has resulted in institutionalized racism of African-Americans and relegated Native Americans on many reservations to Third- and Fourth-World status. If anything, racism, ethnocentrism and essentialism are even more rampant today than in past generations. Decolonization is a partial solution to the cultural decay that threatens us if we do not resolve issues related to colonization. The strong will not survive if there is infection in the cultural core.

In Alaska, subsistence and language rights are two other important acts of decolonization in addition to acknowledging significant Native places and place names. Decolonization is justice.

It is not surprising there would be backlash to a black president decolonizing the name of one of the most iconic features in North America. Donald Trump has vowed that when he is elected president he will change the name back to Mount McKinley. That would be an act of neocolonialism and the antithesis of decolonization. Neocolonialism is practices of economic and cultural dominance by a power elite to control a minority group.

Trump and the 20 percent or so of the Republican Party that supports him are both angry and fearful for the survival of the unsustainable materialist and patriarchal value system they are part of. The epitome of that value system is represented in extravagant displays of wealth, trophy wives, and suppression of minorities by masters of the techniques of dominance and neocolonialism. Excessive wealth and trophy wives are beyond the reach of most, but all can practice ethnic dominance and most do.

Native Alaskans will survive regardless of the official name of the Big Mountain. Dena'ina will call it Dgheley Ka'a, Koyukon will call it Deenali, and other cultures will call it their own names. Likely they will just smile to themselves when they hear someone rave: "I've always called it McKinley and it will always be McKinley!"

They will smile to themselves because they know the intersection of language and landscape has an endurance that transcends official naming and acts of neo-colonialism. They will reject the historic narrative of victimization and stand as tall and proud as the Big Mountain itself, secure in the knowledge that imbedded in their culture is a resilience of sustainability we will all have to adopt if this world is to survive.

Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

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