Skip to main Content

We know it's not McKinley, but is Denali the right name for our mountain?

  • Author: Alan Boraas
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published June 28, 2015

Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan have a bill to change Mount McKinley to Mount Denali. It has been Mount McKinley since 1896 when a miner successfully pushed for the mountain to be named after then President William McKinley of Ohio.

Renaming geographic features from their original indigenous names is an act of colonialism: it's a topographic way of saying "we own you." Colonial renaming began in 1648 when Simen Dezhnev became the first European to sight Alaska and Russians began referring to it as "Bolshiya Zemlia," "the big land." The report of Dezhnev's sighting was buried in a drawer in Irkutsk, so it fell to Vitus Bering to get to apply the Unangan (Aleut) name Alyeska, or Alaska, also said to mean "the big land."

Russians tended to adopt Native names, possibly because at the time they didn't have a good handle on colonialism. So it fell to the Spanish (Valdez, Cordova, etc.) and British (St. Augustine, Cook Inlet, etc.), who had mastered colonial occupation, to advance the renaming project. After the sale of Alaska, U.S. citizens coming north began to rename the "empty" space with a vengeance bordering on moral obligation. (OMG, I must be the first person to see this lake!) With gusto, they named things that already had Native names, after themselves, their sweethearts, kids, hometowns and presidents. Only a few decades ago part of the Alaskan dream was to own 10 acres on a lake you named for your daughter on a road you named for yourself.

It's admirable the senators have taken up the cause to restore the name to its original. But they have the wrong name. Denali is the Koyukon name for the mountain, but, according to an earlier version of the Alaska Native Language Map, it is in Dena'ina territory not Koyukon territory. The Dena'ina name is Dghelay Ka'a. Sondra Shaginoff-Stuart says it on her denaina.kpc.alaska.edu website. Dghelay means mountain and ka'a means big — big mountain.

For Anglophones, "Dghelay Ka'a" will create some heartburn. The "gh" sound is not in English and is like a French "r." The apostrophe represents a glottal stop, also not represented in English spelling, but it appears in words like "mountain" as it is normally said in most dialects without the "t."

English-only xenophobes, (I know, ironic) believe reverting to indigenous names is revisionist history of the worst kind. They, of course, represent a dimension of neocolonial dominance.

The argument for Denali does have some merit. From the north it can be seen from Koyukon territory (as well as Upper Kuskokwim territory). Moreover, the first recorded ascent of the mountain was by 20-year-old Walter Harper, a Koyukon who was a member of a team that included Episcopal missionaries Hudson Stuck and John Tatum, as well as Harry Karstens, who would later become park superintendent. In addition, there were two Gwich'in teenagers Esaias George and John Fredson as camp managers. Fredson was from Venetie and became the first Alaskan Native college graduate and would later work to preserve Native land rights and assist linguists like Edward Sapir.

But, the mountain is in Upper Inlet Dena'ina territory and Dghelay Ka'a is its rightful name.

Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, has taken up the defense of retaining the McKinley name, He's got a difficult argument to make. McKinley never set foot in Alaska much less got near the mountain and his assassination in 1901 ended any chance he would. There is no reason to have a minor president's name on the most notable mountain in North America. He was a fairly good imperialist, however, adding Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines and Hawaii to the list of areas under U.S. hegemony, so his name is actually fitting testimony to the destructive aspects of colonialism—something we Alaskans can be reminded of each time we see Mount McKinley.

If the latest effort to wrest the right to name our mountain from the Eastern power elite fails, I say Alaska gets to name the most significant geographic feature in Ohio after one of our politicians. I say we get to rename the Ohio River because "Ohio" is derived from the Iroquois word "Ohi-yo" meaning "big river" similar to "big mountain" We will have to come to agreement about just who is worthy of the name. Hammond River, Hickel River, Stevens River, and the River Sarah will all have their backers.

You can vote for the new name of the Ohio River online at ADN's Facebook page under this article.

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

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.

Comments