Obama to Rename Alaska’s Mount McKinley to Denali

31 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Denali or McKinley? How a 19th century political ‘joke’ turned into a 119-year-long debate.

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration will change the name of North America’s tallest mountain peak from Mount McKinley to Denali, the White House said Sunday, a major symbolic gesture to Alaska Natives on the eve of President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Alaska.The federal government named it Mount McKinley in 1896 after a gold prospector exploring the region heard that Ohioan William McKinley, a supporter of the gold standard, had won the Republican nomination for president.There was no reason, Stewart explained in his 1945 tome “Names on the Land,” why a New Hampshire gold prospector of little consequence should have been able to christen America’s tallest peak.

By renaming the peak Denali, an Athabascan word meaning “the high one,” Obama waded into a sensitive and decades-old conflict between residents of Alaska and Ohio. But politicians, not toponymists, are the ones who control the nation’s maps, which largely explains how the craggy, ice-bound mountain remained named after America’s 25th president for more than a century. Alaskans have informally called the mountain Denali for years, but the federal government recognizes its name invoking the 25th president, William McKinley, who was born in Ohio and assassinated early in his second term. “With our own sense of reverence for this place, we are officially renaming the mountain Denali in recognition of the traditions of Alaska Natives and the strong support of the people of Alaska,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

For decades, the mountain has towered over the Alaskan taiga — still impressive, still impassive, still the tallest thing for five thousand miles in any direction — while members of Congress debated how to label it. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, said McKinley deserved to be honored, and invited his colleagues to join him to try to block what he called Obama’s “constitutional overreach.” “This political stunt is insulting to all Ohioans, and I will be working with the House Committee on Natural Resources to determine what can be done to prevent this action,” Gibbs said. The announcement came as Obama prepared to open a three-day visit to Alaska aimed at infusing fresh urgency into his call to action on climate change.

He was also the only adventurer with the chutzpah to designate a geographic landmark for his favorite political candidate (perhaps it’s a good thing America is fully mapped now, otherwise we might end up with the Donald Delta or Clinton Creek). The president was also expected to announce new steps to help Alaska Native communities on Wednesday when he becomes the first sitting president to visit the Alaska Arctic.

He named the mountain “after William McKinley of Ohio, who had been nominated for the presidency, and that fact was the first news we received on our way out of the wonderful wilderness,” Dickey wrote in 1896. At 20,320 feet, the mountain stands as the continent’s tallest, and is still growing at a rate of about one millimeter per year, according to the National Park Service. As the AP reports: Obama and [Secretary of State John] Kerry are intensely focused on a global climate treaty that nations hope to finalize in December, as the president works to secure his environmental legacy before leaving office. Known for its majestic views, the mountain is dotted with glaciers and covered at the top with snow year-round, with powerful winds that make it difficult for the adventurous few who seek to climb it. And before the president’s critics start throwing around the phrase “power grab” with too much enthusiasm, let’s also note that the Alaska Dispatch News’ report added, “Jewell’s authority stems from a 1947 federal law that allows her to make changes to geographic names through the U.S.

The president has pledged a U.S. cut in greenhouse gas emissions of up to 28 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, and planned to use the Alaska visit to press other nations to commit to similarly ambitious measures. For the last 40 years, Ohio Republicans have resisted any change – McKinley is one of six presidents from the Buckeye State – characterizing the restoration of Denali as a slight. Still, there was resistance to “Mount McKinley.” Missionary Hudson Stuck, a member of the first team to reach the mountain’s 20,237-foot summit in 1913, lobbied hard for the peak to be re-labeled Denali. Stuck often spoke out against the mistreatment of Alaskan Natives and apparently believed that they were more in need of appreciation than McKinley (who was, after all, already on the $500 bill).

Shortly after Alaska gained statehood in 1959, Alaskans — many of whom had never stopped referring to the mountain as Denali — began to wonder why the state’s natural crown jewel should be named for a president from Ohio. Upon hearing the news that McKinley, a Republican, had received his party’s nomination to be president, the prospector named it after him and the name was formally recognized.

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