Alaska News

McKinley no more: North America's tallest peak to be renamed Denali

It's official: Denali is now the mountain formerly known as Mount McKinley.

With the approval of President Barack Obama, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has signed a "secretarial order" to officially change the name, the White House and Interior Department announced Sunday. The announcement comes roughly 24 hours before Obama touches down in Anchorage for a whirlwind tour of Alaska.

Talk of the name change has swirled in Alaska this year since the National Park Service officially registered no objection in a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C.

The tallest mountain in North America has long been known to Alaskans as Denali, its Koyukon Athabascan name, but its official name was not changed with the creation of Denali National Park and Preserve in 1980, 6 million acres carved out for federal protection under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The state changed the name of the park's tallest mountain to Denali at that time, but the federal government did not.

Jewell's authority stems from a 1947 federal law that allows her to make changes to geographic names through the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, according to the department.

"I think for people like myself that have known the mountain as Denali for years and certainly for Alaskans, it's something that's been a long time coming," Jewell told Alaska Dispatch News Sunday.

Every year, the same story plays out in Washington, D.C.: Alaska legislators sometimes file bills to change the name from Mount McKinley to Denali, and every year, someone in the Ohio congressional delegation -- the home state of the 25th President William McKinley -- files legislation to block a name change.


Members of Alaska's congressional delegation said they were happy with the action.

"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," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said in a video statement recorded on the Ruth Glacier below the mountain.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said in an email that "Denali belongs to Alaska and its citizens. The naming rights already went to ancestors of the Alaska Native people, like those of my wife's family. For decades, Alaskans and members of our congressional delegation have been fighting for Denali to be recognized by the federal government by its true name. I'm gratified that the president respected this."

According to the order Jewell signed, there is a policy of deferring action while a matter is under consideration by Congress. So the Ohio delegation's annual legislative efforts have stalled any federal movement. But the law does allow the interior secretary to take action when the board naming doesn't act "within a reasonable amount of time," the order said.

"It's something (former Alaska Gov. Jay Hammond) pushed for back in 1975, and because of an effort to stop it in legislation that has not actually gone anywhere in the last 40 years, the Board of Geographic Names did not take it up," Jewell said.

As interior secretary, she has authority to make a unilateral decision after a "reasonable time has passed," Jewell said.

"And I think any of us would think that 40 years is an unreasonable amount of time. So we're delighted to make the name change now, and frankly I'm delighted that President Obama has encouraged the name change consistent with his trip," Jewell said.

Jewell said the "overwhelming support for many years from the citizens of Alaska is more robust than anything that we have heard from the citizens of Ohio," and that filing the same legislation year after year has not been accompanied by any "grass roots support" in Ohio.

Neither Jewell nor Obama is expected to visit Denali during their trip to Alaska this week.

"But I've certainly been to the park before, before I took this job," Jewell said.

"I am a climber -- I have aspired to climb it, but I'm not sure it's going to be on my list in the future, due to the fact that I'm not getting younger each year. But it's a mountain that I've always respected and appreciated.

"I think most of us have always called it Denali. I know that's true in the climbing community and I suspect it has been true in Alaska for a very long time. So it'll just be great to formalize that with our friends at the U.S. Geological Survey and the Board of Geographic Names," Jewell said.

The name "Denali" is derived from the Koyukon name and is based on a verb theme meaning "high" or "tall," according to linguist James Kari of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, in the book "Shem Pete's Alaska." It doesn't mean "the great one," as is commonly believed, Kari wrote.

The mountain was named for McKinley before he became president, by gold prospector William A. Dickey, who had just received word of McKinley's nomination as a candidate in 1896. McKinley died without ever setting foot in Alaska, assassinated at the start of his second term in office.

At least one Ohioan wasn't pleased with the new name.

Speaker of the House John Boehner R-Ohio said he is "deeply disappointed in this decision" to remove Ohio-native McKinley's name from the mountain.

"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," Boehner said.


Back in Alaska, Celeste Godfrey, a tour guide aboard the Holland America Line's McKinley Explorer train traveling south from Denali National Park to Anchorage on Sunday afternoon, said she learned the news when the train stopped in Talkeetna. After Godfrey made an emotional announcement, passengers promptly started buying up merchandise with the service's now-obsolete name.

"I read it on a Facebook group, through a community that all of us who work on the train are a part of," Godfrey said.

Godfrey, 29, said she was elated by the federal order despite working just four months in Alaska during her decade in the hospitality industry.

"Super-happy," Godfrey said. "Super-duper happy -- verklempt, if you will."

Although Holland America's train cars in Alaska are scheduled for renovation this winter, Godfrey laughed when she was asked if Holland America would soon drop the "McKinley Explorer" name.

"Probably in time, but I don't think it's going to happen this year," Godfrey said.

Alaska Dispatch News reporter Chris Klint contributed to this story.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is Alaska Dispatch News' Washington, DC reporter, and she covers the legislation, regulation and litigation that impact the Last Frontier.  Erica came to ADN after years as a reporter covering energy at POLITICO. Before that, she covered environmental policy at a DC trade publication and worked at several New York dailies.