Recently, the Obama administration decided to change the name of North America’s tallest mountain from Mount McKinley to Denali. The move brought mixed reactions. Senator Lisa Murkowski said that she’d “like to thank the president for working with us to achieve this significant change to show honor, respect, and gratitude to the Athabascan people of Alaska.” In contrast, Representative Tim Ryan said that “We must retain this national landmark’s name in order to honor the legacy of this great American president and patriot.” Though the two are from different parties, in this case it’s the Republican supporting the decision and the Democrat opposing. The reason is their home state. Murkowski is from Alaska, where Denali is located, while Ryan is from Ohio, McKinley’s home state. Ultimately, renaming the mountain makes more sense.
Unlike the decision to remove Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury and arguably the founder of our nation’s financial system, from the ten dollar bill, this decision does not affect someone with an obvious connection to the item in question. President McKinley had virtually no historical connection with the mountain whatsoever. A prospector named it Mount McKinley in 1896, as a show of support for William McKinley, who was then only a candidate for the presidency. It wouldn’t be until 1917 that the federal government gave official recognition to the title, calling the area Mount McKinley National Park.
In contrast, the mountain had been called Denali by Alaska natives for centuries. Even before this year’s name change, they weren’t the only ones. The Alaskan government has officially called the mountain Denali since 1975. In 1980, Congress combined Mount McKinley National Park and Denali National Monument into Denali National Park and Preserve, which is what the area is still called today. Also, the mountain is in Denali Borough (County), though the borough was established in 1990. Alaska has for the past few decades been asking for a name change, but that proposal was always blocked by the Ohio congressional delegation.
Because of the issue being held up in Congress, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names refused to give into Alaska’s request. However, the 1947 law that created the board also allowed the Secretary of the Interior to make a decision unilaterally if the board didn’t “act within a reasonable time.” The fact that the action was unilateral also invited criticism, since the name Mount McKinley dates back to the law passed by Congress that created the park in 1917. However, the Department of the Interior maintains that the law merely established the name of the park itself. While it isn’t entirely clear that the decision was legal, the presence of legal ambiguity and the unlikelihood of judicial review because of issues with legal standing mean that the name change will in all likelihood remain.
Name changes are often regrettable because they result in ambiguity or contradict history. This name change is not one of those cases. The name Denali is more in line with the names of the surrounding area and is more in line with Alaska’s history. So, while congressional action would have been preferable, the name change itself is a positive thing.