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Denali dilemma: Can Dan Sullivan get Mount McKinley renamed?

  • Author: Rick Sinnott
  • Updated: June 30, 2016
  • Published December 21, 2014

I'm excited about sending Dan Sullivan to Washington, D.C., as Alaska's new junior senator. Alaskans of any political persuasion can agree that we should get to name our own state's highest mountain, currently misnamed Mount McKinley. And Sullivan is uniquely positioned to do something about it.

Mount McKinley was named after Ohio Gov. William McKinley, who subsequently became the 25th president of the United States. Most Alaskans still prefer Denali, the name given by the Koyukon Athabaskan people living north of the mountain. Denali means "the high one" or "the great one."

At 20,237 feet, Denali towers over neighboring peaks. It's nearly 6,000 feet higher than the highest mountain in the other 49 states, Mount Whitney. California's Mount Whitney is only the 12th tallest peak in the United States. The 11 tallest peaks are in Alaska.

Sullivan fought hard to become a senator from Alaska and didn't appreciate it when his opponents called him an Outsider. It didn't help that Sullivan, who's from Ohio, raised more money in his home state than in Alaska. Political blogger Jeanne Devon has called him Ohio's "third senator."

But that connection can only help us now.

Dickey’s idol

Unfortunately, Denali has been saddled with someone else's idea of a good name for more than a century. A prospector named William Dickey, in Alaska only one summer, described seeing a stupendously large mountain from as far away as Tyonek.

He named it after presidential candidate McKinley who, like Dickey, favored the gold standard instead of silver coinage. His letter was published in the New York Sun in 1897 and the name stuck long enough to be published on maps.

Dickey's letter admitted that he wasn't the first to see the mountain or even to name it. He wrote, "all the Indians of Cooks Inlet call it the 'Bulshoe' Mountain, which is their word for anything very large." The name was an adaptation of Bulshaia Gora, which means "big mountain," the Russian translation of the Native name. Numerous Russian explorers and traders had seen Denali, beginning in the 1770s or 1780s, before Dickey.

Dickey wasn't even the first American to see the mountain. A prospector named Frank Densmore passed near the mountain in 1889. His description of the mountain as observed from Lake Minchumina was so enthusiastic that other prospectors called it Densmore's Mountain. Too bad Densmore didn't write a letter to the New York Sun about it.

Other white men had seen and described the mountain before Densmore. For example, Episcopal Archdeacon Hudson Stuck recounted in his book "The Ascent of Denali" how 18 years before Dickey visited Alaska, two traders saw the mountain. Traveling up the Tanana River in 1878 (the first ascent by white men), Alfred Mayo and Arthur Harper saw an enormous ice mountain to the south but didn't think to name it after themselves or anyone else.

Dickey, the cheechako, never ventured within 40 miles of Denali. Stuck, the leader of the first expedition to summit the mountain, in 1913, was a bona fide Alaskan. He argued forcefully that its Koyukon name should be restored. There is, he wrote, "a certain ruthless arrogance that … contemptuously ignores the Native names of conspicuous natural objects, almost always appropriate and significant, and overlays them with names that are, commonly, neither the one or the other."

The first person to set foot on Denali's summit, Stuck's 20-year-old assistant, a Koyukon-Irish man named Walter Harper – the son of Arthur Harper – undoubtedly would have concurred.

Another person with a strong claim to choosing the mountain's name was Charles Sheldon. While collecting the hides and skulls of wild animals for the National Museum from the hills and valleys immediately north of Denali from 1906 to 1908, Sheldon conceived the idea of protecting the region as a national park.

In his book "The Wilderness of Denali," Sheldon wrote, "The Indians who have lived for countless generations in the presence of these colossal mountains have given them names that are both euphonious and appropriate."

His original proposal used the name Denali National Park, but other supporters accepted the misnomer, Mount McKinley, which was already recorded on maps. Mount McKinley National Park was established in 1917.

War of the words

Many Alaska congressional delegations have taken a swing at restoring the mountain's name without success.

In 1975 the Alaska Geographic Names Board changed Mount McKinley to Denali and, at former Gov. Jay Hammond's request, the Alaska Legislature asked the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to follow suit. Rep. Ralph Regula of Ohio blocked the petition.

Regula, whose district included McKinley's adopted hometown and burial place, made a career out of forestalling every attempt to rename the mountain until he retired in 2009.

Regula and other McKinley supporters insist that renaming the mountain would be "an insult to the memory of President McKinley and to the people of my district and the nation who are so proud of his heritage." They also note that there is more than one Native name for Denali. In other words, somebody's feelings are going to be hurt. They hint darkly that if we give the Natives this one, they'll want to rename other landmarks they used to own. And don't forget how expensive it would be to change the name on all those maps.

It's true that the mountain has several Native names. According to "Shem Pete's Alaska," the Dena'ina Athabascans living south of the mountain and on the shore of upper Cook Inlet called it Dghelay Ka'a, or "big mountain." The name was Anglicized as Traleika. Denali seems to be the name that caught on.

Nevertheless, both the mountain and the park were named after McKinley until 1980. Under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the park became Denali National Park and Preserve. Rep. Don Young argued that the mountain should have the same name as the park, but he was outmaneuvered by Regula and others.

After taking on Alaska's delegation for five years, Regula employed a sneakier tactic. In 1981, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names adopted a policy to not render a decision on a name if the matter was also being considered by Congress. Regula introduced a series of bills and amendments declaring that the name of Mount McKinley shall not be changed.

Since Regula's retirement, Sen. Lisa Murkowski has attempted to rename the mountain Denali at least twice. Those attempts were quashed by two new representatives from Ohio.

Come on, Ohio, this farce has gone on long enough. The only other state high point named after a president is Mount Washington in New Hampshire, and the "father of our country" was only a general at the time.

McKinley wasn't even one of our better presidents. In a wide range of surveys to determine the best and worst U.S. presidents, Americans – from top historians to the New York Times journalist and statistician Nate Silver – consistently rank McKinley near the middle.

Who'd have ever thought that Ohio's allegiance to a mediocre president could keep Alaskans from choosing a more appropriate name for our mountain?

But here's where things get interesting. There are three excellent reasons why the time is ripe and Sullivan is the right man in the right place.

First, like President McKinley, Sullivan is from Ohio. If a native son of Ohio who also happens to be a senator from Alaska asks that the mountain be renamed, who's going to deny him?

But there's an even better reason. Sullivan's wife, Julie Fate Sullivan, is a Koyukon Athabascan. Her people named Denali. Her mother, Mary Jane Fate, was a noted Athabascan leader, the first co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives, among other things. Sullivan leaned on his wife's heritage when election opponents claimed he was an Outsider. I don't know the lady, but if Sullivan doesn't take a run at renaming the mountain, he may have to answer for it on the home front.

The third reason is and always was the best. The mountain had a name before Dickey starting calling it McKinley. Unlike some Native American names, Denali isn't a tongue twister.

Let’s make a deal

As an Alaskan, those three reasons seem more than sufficient for changing the minds of Ohioans and other fans of President McKinley. But maybe they're more hard-nosed than we think. So I'm going to give Sullivan a tip on how to sweeten the deal.

You see, the highest natural point in Ohio is Campbell Hill, elevation 1,549 feet. Even Ohioans don't consider it a mountain. Photos demonstrate that Ohio's proudest geographical feature is not much higher than a pitcher's mound. One dedicated "peak-bagger," who has climbed the highest points in all but three states, ranked Ohio's Campbell Hill as 43rd in height but 47th in difficulty, noting that the approach included "a surprisingly steep lawn."

I might have suggested that Ohio name Campbell Hill after its beloved president. "McKinley Hill" -- it has a nice ring to it. But Sullivan has a much more valuable card up his sleeve.

Alaska has hundreds of unnamed mountains. I wouldn't be surprised if most of Alaska's unnamed peaks are taller than 1,549 feet. So he might offer to name another Alaska mountain, one much higher than Ohioans could ever find in their own state, after President McKinley.

Heck, Alaska has so many unnamed mountains we could name a nearby peak Mount Regula, after that congressman's spirited defense of McKinley.

When Sullivan wraps up that negotiation, we'll have another project for him to work on. Alaska's third highest mountain, Mount Foraker, is also named after an Ohioan. I know, I know, it's like a bad joke.

Mount Foraker, elevation 17,400 feet, was named by Lt. Joseph Herron in 1899 while investigating a route from Cook Inlet through Simpson Pass to the mouth of the Tanana River. Herron lost his way and abandoned his starving packhorses with winter coming on. He and his men were rescued by two small bands of Athabascans living not far from Lake Minchumina.

Herron recorded Athabascan names for many geographic features. The towering mountain west of Denali was known to the Koyukon Athabascans around Lake Minchumina as Sultana ("the woman") or Menlale ("Denali's wife"), but Herron couldn't resist naming it after Sen. Joseph Foraker of Ohio. Foraker was forced to retire nine years later when voters learned he had accepted money from an oil company for legal advice while in office.

Hopefully our senator from Ohio can expunge the names of Ohio politicians from two of Alaska's most prominent peaks.

We are just as proud of our mountains as Ohioans are of their politicians.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News. Contact him at rickjsinnott@gmail.com.

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