Skip to main Content

McKinley or Denali? How about Mount Big High One in any language?

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published April 23, 2013

Noble though her cause may be, U.S. Sen. for Alaska Lisa Murkowski has gone and told America a whopper of a lie. All this because she wants Mount McKinley, named for President William McKinley by supporters of the gold standard, renamed. So far, so good.

She makes a legitimate case that McKinley never set foot in Alaska, never had a great interest in Alaska, and ended up with his name on North America's tallest mountain only because business interests in Alaska wanted to promote their gold. Big Gold was the Big Oil of Alaska in the 1890s. Gold backers pushed for the McKinley name because they thought it would be good for business. And thus all the previous names for the mountain went into history's dustbin.

Now Murkowski is pulling one of them out and arguing the mountain should be called "'Denali,' as it was called by Alaskans for centuries before.''

Or so she claims.

How about Dghelay Ka'a?

There is no doubt Denali has been the hip and trendy name among the politically correct for years, but it is a lie of McKinleyesque proportions (excuse the pun) to claim this was the name the mountain "was called by Alaskans for centuries before.''

James Kari, an associate professor of linguistics at the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, pointed this out nearly 25 years ago. The big mountain north of Anchorage had a lot of names "for centuries."

"Deenaalee,'' now Denali, was one of them. It was the Koyukon Athabaskan name for the mountain, translating to "The High One."

The Dena' ina Athabaskans living in and around what would become Anchorage had a different name. They called the mountain "Dghelay Ka'a." It translates as "Big Mountain.''

Not to rekindle any of those old, Anchorage-Fairbanks disputes that used to rage in the 49th state, but why should Athabaskans up north get to name Alaska's tallest mountain? Why not Athabaskans of the Anchorage area?

Or Traleika?

Had this been put to a vote before white folk overran the country, "Dghelay Ka'a'' almost surely would have carried the day given an estimated Dena'ina population of 3,000 versus just 2,000 Koyukons. But, of course, these weren't the only indigenous people with a name for the big mountain. The Aleuts, who numbered near 30,000 in Alaska before the Russians murdered and enslaved them, called it Traleika.

Given a vote, they might have an even better claim to a name than the Dena'ina or Koyukon. One could even make a good argument, given the way the Aleuts suffered at the hands of Europeans, the mountain should be named Traleika in their honor.

The first of Johnny Come Latelys to name the mountain was George Vancouver. The first European to officially cite it in 1794, he called it simply "distant stupendous mountains,'' which wasn't a bad name and in keeping with the Alaska Native standards of naming by description, such as with "The High One," and "Big Mountain.''

It was left to Barron Ferdinand von Wrangell of Russia to give the mountain its first, official European name in 1839. He labeled it Tenada, ignoring the common Russian name for the mountain at that time: Bol'shaya. The latter translates into "big mountain,'' which Wikipedia will tell you is "the Russian translation of Denali.'' Wikipedia would, however, appear to be just a little off in this case.

"Big Mountain'' is "Dghelay Ka'a,'' the Dena'ina name for the mountain. And it seems only logical the Russians, who had far more contact with the Dena'ina than the Koyukon, would pick "Big Mountain'' over "The Great One'' as the locally common name.

So instead of telling lies about what the mountain was "called by Alaskans for centuries before,'' maybe Murkowski should do what politicians do best and find some middle ground on a name, which everyone can agree might be something like "Mount Big High One'' in any language.

Because that, when you get right down to it, is pretty much what Alaskans were calling it "for centuries before,'' and probably for centuries before that.

Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch. Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)