Denali or McKinley – What to Call the Great One

Locals and other folks sometimes ask the question… “Why is the mountain called by two different names? What is its “real” name?”

It’s a good question, because officially, in the eyes of the government, the mountain has two. In the United States Board of Geographic Names (USBGN, the federal governmental body responsible for naming geographic features in the U.S.), the mountain is listed as Mount McKinley, named by William Dickey, a gold prospector impressed by the mountain while digging in the sands of the Susitna River. In early 1897, he wrote a “discovery account” printed in the New York Sun. “We named our great peak Mount McKinley, after William McKinley of Ohio, who had been nominated for the Presidency.” (It begs the question, what made it his to name?)

In 1975, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names (ABGN) officially changed the mountain’s name to “Denali,” the name by which Alaska’s Native people living near the mountain have always known it. In the language of the Alaskan Koyukon Athabascans, Denali means “the great one”. In 1975, the Alaska Legislature also requested the U.S. Board to officially change the name to “Mount Denali.” Then and now, those requests have been blocked by members of the congressional delegation from Ohio, the home state of President McKinley.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which incorporated McKinley National Park (originally created in 1917) into a larger protected area named Denali National Park and Preserve. Naming the new, larger park Denali while retaining the name Mount McKinley for the mountain was thought to be a compromise by many. However, many others maintained that calling the mountain and park by different names only created confusion.

In 1981, Ohio Congressman Ralph Regula, a fierce proponent of keeping the name of the mountain as McKinley, devised a new tactic to support the Mount McKinley name. Capitalizing on a USBGN policy that states the Board cannot consider any name-change proposal if congressional legislation relating to that name is pending, Regula began a biennial legislative tradition of either introducing language into Interior Department appropriation bills or introducing a standalone bill that states that the name of Mount McKinley shall not be changed. This effectively killed any Denali name-change proposal pending with the Board. Congressman Regula retired in 2009 and a rekindled interest in renaming the mountain was seen. But, despite strong efforts in Alaska, U.S. Representatives from Ohio took on Regula’s role as congressional guardians of the Mount McKinley name.

In June of 2012, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski introduced new legislation to change the name. Senator Murkowski stated that under her bill the Alaskan name for the mountain would become the technically correct term for one of Alaska’s major landmarks, and people could continue calling it whatever they wanted. She noted that “…making Denali — the name that Alaskans use anyway — the official name of America’s tallest mountain, means something to Alaska.”

At this time, the mountain continues to go by two different names. In any language though, and by any name, anyone who has ever seen it standing high and proud on a clear day knows how it astounds, inspires, and awes. If you have not yet experienced the mountain, it’s truly something to look forward to.

Marilyn, owner and manager of 11th Avenue B&B, is one of the member
Innkeepers of Anchorage Alaska Bed & Breakfast Association

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