Seth K Hughes

Barack Obama recently backed a name change Alaskans have wanted for decades.

August 31, 2015

The Obama administration has announced that Alaska’s Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak, will change its name to Denali. As he embarks on a trip to Alaska, President Barack Obama endorsed the name change that Alaskans have desired for decades, and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell officially issued the order over the weekend.

Denali has long been the native Athabascan name for the mountain—meaning “the high one” or “the great one”—but the federal government instead has officially recognized it as Mount McKinley since 1917 in honor of America’s 25th president William McKinley. The story goes that in 1896, a gold prospector exploring the Alaskan range heard that McKinley had won the Republican nomination for president and named the peak for him.

The Alaskan government has used the name Denali to refer to the mountain since 1975, and Alaska lawmakers have sought a federal name change since the late ‘70s. Lawmakers from from Ohio—McKinley’s home state—have fought off that name change, however. As the New York Times notes, a compromise in 1980 kept the Mount McKinley name and changed the name of its national park to Denali National Park and Preserve.

Several of Ohio’s congressional representatives have expressed their opposition to this weekend’s name change. U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner issued a statement extolling McKinley’s legacy and declaring his deep disappointment. And Senator Rob Portman tweeted that he was “disappointed” in the Obama administration’s decision, citing it as “another example of the President going around Congress.”

But for many national parks watchers—and for Alaskans more generally—the name change has been a long time coming. As the Department of Interior points out in its press release, McKinley never even visited Alaska, yet the peak and the name Denali are important to the Alaskan people. In a statement, Jewell said that the “name change recognizes the sacred status of Denali to many Alaska Natives.”

Alaska Governor Bill Walker agreed, issuing a statement applauding the administration’s decision. “Alaska’s place names should reflect and respect the rich cultural history of our state,” Walker said in the statement, “and officially recognizing the name Denali does just that.”

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