Denali – What’s in a name?

Denali - Mt. McKinley Highest point in North America - National Parks Service

Denali – Mt. McKinley
Highest point in North America – National Parks Service

President Obama recently “renamed” Mt. McKinley to Denali. Denali is, of course, the Athabaskan name for the mountain. Denali is the name by which I knew and called the mountain my entire life growing up in Lingít Aaní (southeast Alaska.) There is no Tlingit name for the mountain that I am aware of, otherwise I would refer to it by it’s Tlingit name. As far as I know, most Alaskans refer to the mountain as “Denali,” or at least recognize this name for the mountain. So does it matter that the federal government recognizes “Denali” as the mountain’s official name?

For me it doesn’t matter one way or the other. “Mt. McKinley” is surely a colonial name for the mountain. Did President McKinley, for whom it was named, even lay eyes on the mountain? The overwriting of indigenous place names across the continent is a claim to the land by the United States of America. It is the crossing of T’s and dotting of I’s after conquest of indigenous tribes. Supporters of a name change may have you believe that an “official” renaming of the mountain is to pay respect to the original inhabitants of the land. But I would throw it in with the same category as changing the name of the Washington Redskins football team – it’s a 21st century attempt to legitimize the United State’s claim to North America by purportedly representing native tribes and peoples. But these are the very people whose extermination was a part of US policy at one point. I believe that this is about making us upwardly mobile Natives feel better about voting Democrat and supporting the United States, even as it continues it’s original Indian Policy in the Middle East. Even as it refuses us real sovereignty (which would be a threat to it’s legitimacy) in return for dependence and third world living conditions.

I will support an “official” name change once we have genuinely reclaimed our land from our conquerors. Until then I don’t particularly care what the federal government calls any mountain, river, or monument. For me and the people I know and love, it has always been Denali and will always be Denali.

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About Vince

I am a Tlingit, born and raised in Tlingit Country, and a proud member of the Tlingit Nation.
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One Response to Denali – What’s in a name?

  1. Naomi Fowler says:

    I think that progress needs to be marked sometimes. I don’t agree “what does it matter?” when it comes to the world community embracing change, even if “official.” Symbols gain even more importance when respectfully returned–and we kind of love symbolism, don’t we? In many ways symbolism is our currency (our artists still use it to make money after all) and I believe symbols come with principles as well as a certain kind of inviolability. I see symbolic acts as providing momentum that can be used to swing a good direction if welcomed and spun into a good tale. Let’s turn back time with this announcement and work to preserve and rebuild with basic rights to things like land, fishing, family, fresh air, and more of a voice in what happens next for our community.

    By the way, thank you for your leadership and writing about this. I think it’s important that we talk about it publicly and you started that here. Conservation and care for the land are what Obama is in Alaska trying to understand so I am definitely thankful for any attention he and you can draw to that–publicity stunt or no.

    Anyway, what do you think of McKinley’s assassination? People are going to be talking about that? Oh wait! You don’t care. That’s probably good. 🙂 We have to stay focused, right?

    Let’s brainstorm some more community hashtags next! Love your blog, btw.

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