Letters to the Editor

Letter: A regrettable naming choice

Since Alaska became part of the United States, many of its natural landmarks have been inappropriately named after people — often older, well-known white males — who have no connection to the landscape features bearing their names; and in too many instances, no connection even to Alaska. Mounts McKinley and Foraker in the Alaska Range are perhaps the most prominent examples of this lamentable Western tradition. McKinley was finally renamed Denali after decades of effort to make that change, though Foraker officially remains named after an Ohio politician with no ties to Alaska.  

Episcopal missionary Hudson Stuck, leader of the first party to successfully reach the top of Denali in 1913, may have been the first prominent white person, at least in Alaska, to harshly criticize the “ruthless arrogance” of this practice, which commonly has ignored names long applied to landscape features by Alaska’s Native peoples, in order to “honor” privileged white folks — again, mostly men.

The renaming of Mount Cerberus, a remote volcano in the Aleutian Islands chain, sadly follows this arrogant tradition, as it will apparently be now known as Mount Young, in “honor” of the late Rep. Don Young. It strikes me as particularly offensive, since Young was more interested in developing our state’s “natural resources” than preserving them and made a habit of criticizing the “environmental extremists” who often battled him while seeking to preserve Alaska’s wildlands.

I have no problem with Congress, or our state, naming buildings or other human structures after Young or other notable Alaskans. But to name a wild, remote volcano after our long-serving representative is another regrettable instance of what Stuck and I — and likely at least a few other Alaskans — consider, in Stuck’s words, contemptuous behavior.

Though the volcano did not bear an Alaska Native name, Mount Cerberus is much more fitting than Mount Young. Taken from Greek mythology, Cerberus is the “three-headed hound of Hades” that was said to guard the gates of the underworld. Volcanoes have a direct connection to the Earth’s “underworld” and the fiery fury of an erupting volcano might very well elicit images of Hades. While it’s true that Rep. Young would sometimes “blow his top,” he has no connection whatsoever to this volcanic mountain or the region in which it occurs.  

In a time when an effort is being made to apply more relevant and descriptive names to landscape features — and change place names bestowed by colonizing white folks that are offensive to Indigenous peoples — this renaming of Mount Cerberus is, in my view, an awful throwback to less enlightened times and practices.

— Bill Sherwonit



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Bill Sherwonit

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Alaska's Bears" and "Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska's Wildlife."