The Long History Behind Renaming Mt. McKinley

ADVANCE FOR THE WEEKEND OF JAN. 18-19 AND THEREAFTER - FILE - This Jan. 28, 2013, file photo, shows Mt. McKinley as a raven flies at Pt. Woronzof in Anchorage, Alaska. Armed with the allure of vast openness and prist... ADVANCE FOR THE WEEKEND OF JAN. 18-19 AND THEREAFTER - FILE - This Jan. 28, 2013, file photo, shows Mt. McKinley as a raven flies at Pt. Woronzof in Anchorage, Alaska. Armed with the allure of vast openness and pristine wildlife, Alaska's tourism industry regularly courts potential visitors in the more densely-populated parts of the world. (AP Photo/Anchorage Daily News, Erik Hill, file) MORE LESS
Start your day with TPM.
Sign up for the Morning Memo newsletter

President Obama’s decision to approve the formal renaming of Alaska’s Mt. McKinley to Denali has been met with outrage. Some of it has been par for the course: House Speaker John Boehner expressed his “deep disappointment in this decision” and conservatives have critiqued Obama for bypassing Congress yet again. But the volume of outraged responses from present and former lawmakers in President William McKinley’s native state of Ohio is surprisingly high for a distant mountain and 120-year-old presidency.

As usual, those partisan responses have very little to do with relevant historical details and contexts. Indeed, the name McKinley may well have been more of an ironic inside joke than a tribute to the president. As Yoni Appelbaum writes at The Atlantic, the name was initially bestowed in 1897 by William Dickey, a Seattle businessman returning from an Alaskan expedition. Dickey later claimed that he decided upon the name in order to anger his two traveling companions, who were ardent backers of free silver (while the soon-to-be-inaugurated McKinley was famously in favor of the gold standard). By the time that story came out, McKinley had been assassinated and the name seemed to honor a fallen leader—but it’s quite possible that it was initially intended as something much less serious.

Quirky details aside, this renaming controversy echoes far deeper and more longstanding American historical and cultural issues. After all, whatever Dickey’s intentions in choosing McKinley, it was that 1890s choice which represented the original renaming of the mountain, a change in the name of a sacred place for generations of Alaskan Native Americans (particularly members of the Koyukon Athabaskan nation). Alaska has acknowledged that sacred heritage for decades, and the mountain has been known as Denali within the state since the 1970s. But every time Congress has tried to formalize the change, Ohio has protested and stalled the process, arguing that the name McKinley is an important part of their state’s history and heritage.

Yet that name exists at the explicit expense of another foundational American cultural heritage and identity. As a result, in maintaining the name McKinley over Denali on the national level, as in the original act of renaming the mountain, mainstream European American culture has extended the acts of settler colonialism and imperialism that have stolen and occupied Native lands for centuries—a process illustrated in William Dickey’s own era by the 1893 military coup in and 1898 annexation (by the McKinley administration!) of Hawaii.

Such imperial renamings have been part of the European colonial enterprise from literally its first moments: In a 1493 letter describing his first voyage to Spanish financial backer Luis de Santangel, Christopher Columbus writes, “To the first island I discovered I gave the name of San Salvador, in commemoration of His Divine Majesty, who has wonderfully granted all this. The Indians call it Guanaham.” And they have certainly continued into our postcolonial American existence—many of our prominent spaces and places, from Mt. Rushmore to Lake Superior, were similarly renamed by European settlers and officials from their original Native designations.

In her 1834 poem “Indian Names,” Lydia Sigourney imagined a far different process and effect, one in which the continued use of Native American names such as Massachusetts and Connecticut might lead to better collective memories of these peoples and the American histories (both proud and tragic) to which they connect. “Their name in on your waters,” she writes, “Ye may not wash it out.” Yet it seems to me that we have been able to maintain these Native names without engaging with those histories—perhaps because we can do so without controversy or even attention to what the names signify. It is precisely changes such as the renaming of Denali that will be required, to force our collective engagement with these names and their contested contexts.

South Dakota has recently modeled each aspect of that renaming process. The state has formally changed the name of Shannon County, named for a controversial Indian Affairs official, to Oglala Lakota County. And officials are discussing changing the name of Harney Peak, named for the general responsible for an 1855 massacre; possible new names for the mountain include Black Elk Peak. These decisions have been met with debate and protest, with accusations of “political correctness” and with more nuanced arguments for history and heritage. And it is precisely those debates and contexts that the renaming process makes possible.

Much of our current debate over Native American names centers on the Washington Redskins and related mascots. Changing such offensive terms will be an important step in better respecting these American cultures and communities. But far more important would be reclamations like that of Denali, symbolic collective actions that can help us engage with very real and longstanding histories of both imperialism and cultural survival. The Native names, like the peoples who bestowed them, have never vanished and remain with us today—it’s long past time we remembered and honored them.

Ben Railton is an Associate Professor of English at Fitchburg State University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.

Latest Cafe

Notable Replies

  1. Simply put, it should have the name that the residents of its state desire it to.

    Since when can Ohio claim primacy over the affairs of Alaska?

  2. I’d love to see the RWNJs’ heads explode if Obama said that this was simply a matter of the Federal government recognizing states’ rights.

  3. Has Sarah Palin weighed in on this yet?

    This seems to put her in a bind, Obama doing something most Alaskans want.

  4. I somtimes feel like I’m playing gotcha with the titles of articles, as in “made you look, ha, ha.”

    This artcle was fairly interesting, but it was not really about the history of Denali specifically, but rather about renaming Native American places.

    I wanted to read an article discussing the particulars of this statement: “Alaska has acknowledged that sacred heritage for decades, and the mountain has been known as Denali within the state since the 1970s. But every time Congress has tried to formalize the change, Ohio has protested and stalled the process, arguing that the name McKinley is an important part of their state’s history and heritage.”

    Specifically, conservatives and lots of liberals are acting as though Obama just got up one morning and decided to rename a mountain. It doesn’t work that way. The following is from the Board of Geographic Names website.

    “The U.S. Board on Geographic Names is a Federal body created in 1890 and established in its present form by Public Law in 1947 to maintain uniform geographic name usage throughout the Federal Government. The Board comprises representatives of Federal agencies concerned with geographic information, population, ecology, and management of public lands. Sharing its responsibilities with the Secretary of the Interior, the Board promulgates official geographic feature names with locative attributes as well as principles, policies, and procedures governing the use of domestic names, foreign names, Antarctic names, and undersea feature names.”

    “The original program of names standardization addressed the complex issues of domestic geographic feature names during the surge of exploration, mining, and settlement of western territories after the American Civil War. Inconsistencies and contradictions among many names, spellings, and applications became a serious problem to surveyors, map makers, and scientists who required uniform, non-conflicting geographic nomenclature. President Benjamin Harrison signed an Executive Order establishing the Board and giving it authority to resolve unsettled geographic names questions. Decisions of the Board were accepted as binding by all departments and agencies of the Federal Government.”

    In this age of geographic information systems, the Internet, and homeland defense, geographic names data are even more important and more challenging. Applying the latest technology, the Board on Geographic Names continues its mission. It serves the Federal Government and the public as a central authority to which name problems, name inquiries, name changes, and new name proposals can be directed. In partnership with Federal, State, and local agencies, the Board provides a conduit through which uniform geographic name usage is applied and current names data are promulgated."

    “For geographic feature names policies applying to the United States, or to the use of foreign geographic names, Antarctica names, and undersea feature names by the United States, see the respective items in the main menu on the left. Any person or organization, public or private, may make inquiries or request the Board to render formal decisions on proposed new names, proposed name changes, or names that are in conflict. Minutes of the Board’s meetings are available.”

    I wanted to know things like how many times and in what ways has Ohio kept the government from renaming a mountain in another state? Someone had to apply to the BGN for the name change, who did that? When and how did Obama get involved? Has he always been concerned about the name or was he just looking for aa symbolic gesture for his historic visit to Alaska? How did he find out about it? Who brought it to his attention? In other words I was looking for a “long history behind the renaming Mt. McKinley.”

    Also, using the term “renaming” sounds as though it is a brand new name instead of reverting to it’s original name: an entirely different thing.

  5. Not just an American meme.

Continue the discussion at

19 more replies


Avatar for system Avatar for lochsabill Avatar for thehatter Avatar for mcgloinm Avatar for leftflank Avatar for cessnadriver Avatar for eglot Avatar for martinstett Avatar for robcat2075 Avatar for captaincommonsense Avatar for misterneutron Avatar for sherron Avatar for BenRailton Avatar for haywood

Continue Discussion
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: