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.