Denali? McKinley? What’s Going On Up There!?

Last week the National Parks Service said they would not oppose a move by President Obama to rename Mt. McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America and centerpiece of Denali National Park, to Mt. Denali. Denali is the original name the Alaskan natives had given the mountain before it was renamed by American explorers in honor of William McKinley.

As with everything President Obama does, controversy immediately began to swirl. Tumblr liberals claimed a victory for native Americans while Facebook republicans shouted that this was yet another example of Obama’s unilateral decision making. The online controversy spilled into real life when Ohio republicans blasted the president for the naming decision. This was partly because McKinley was an Ohio native and partly because republicans can always score easy political points by slamming the president.

The history of the mountains name predates the Obama administration however and indirectly displays a battle for cultural dominance in the Alaskan wilderness. Denali is the original name the Koyukon people gave to the mountain meaning “tall.” When the Russians arrived and claimed the area as Russian Alyeska they named the mountain “Bolshaya Gora,” a Russian translation of Denali meaning “big mountain.” When Russian hegemony passed to the United States after Seward’s Purchase the mountain briefly became known as Densmore’s Mountain after Frank Densmore became the first European to reach the base of the mountain. Finally the mountain became known as Mt. McKinley in honor of then presidential candidate William McKinley in 1896. The name stuck when McKinley won and was cemented when he was assassinated in 1901. The name and park were formalized when then President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Mt. McKinley National Park in 1917.


Denali is the tallest mountain in North America and the third tallest mountain in the world in terms of prominence.

While McKinley became the official name in the United States as American hegemony became established in Alaska, the local name of Denali stuck with natives and white Alaskans alike. In 1975 after pressure from Alaskan interest groups the national park was renamed Denali but pressure has remained on Washington to officially rename the mountain back to Denali and for decades both names have been synonymous with the mountain itself. Interestingly enough a 70’s push by Alaskan legislators to change the name of the mountain to Denali was blocked, again by Ohio Republicans seeking to protect McKinley’s legacy. Now the mountain is back to Denali.

While Ohio republicans continue to raise a stink, the name change has been praised in the state it affects most. Alaskan legislators and locals have been pressing for the change for some time and, with the mountain officially renamed, the president’s action has earned widespread praise in Alaska.

But is this simply a long awaited name change or part of something larger?

Liberals will claim this is merely Obama righting a long time wrong and using his “give no F’s” end of term to accomplish things partisan politics have prevented for years. Conservatives claim this is yet another example of comrade Obama ruling unilaterally from the White Palace.

The president is currently in Alaska touring national parks and raising awareness about climate change and the strategic importance of the Arctic. Coupled with his earlier move to set aside tens of millions of acres as national monuments earlier this year as well as extremely controversial EPA decisions, all of these policy moves are shaping up to make Obama the most important environmental president in some time. Democratic president Jimmy Carter set aside much of the land Obama is currently touring and Republican president Richard Nixon created the EPA. With his climate change policy maneuvers, Obama seems poised to join them in the list of most environmentally friendly presidents we’ve had.

While the name of a mountain pales in comparison to the widespread environmental and economic effects of his administration’s climate decisions, the name change is a huge symbolic move for his presidency. One that emphasizes minorities in the United States and environmental action. Based on those larger moves, the name change doesn’t appear to be just a name change but part of a larger environmental policy that uses Alaska as a showcase for why the U.S. needs an overhaul of its environmental public policy. It’s seems not to be part of some grand executive scheme Emperor Obama is enacting to acquire more power but it certainly works in conjunction with his public policy climate change goals. Certainly from a political branding, awareness, and marketing standpoint. And with climate change, by all accounts, a very real long term threat, but one people don’t want to act on in the here and now at the expense of the economy, it would make sense that this battle is best played out in the final half term of Obama’s presidency. It could be a long term policy battle his legacy can rest on in the future (even if he accomplishes little by way of congress), similar to Theodore Roosevelt’s full flip to progressivism by his final year even if Congress turn its back on him by the end.

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