Mount McKinley Renamed

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Mount McKinley no more (Becky Bohrer / AP)

Updated on August 31 at 11:51a.m.

President Obama begins a three-day visit to Alaska today to call for action on climate change.

But much of the attention on that trip will be focused—at least in Alaska, Ohio, and in Washington—on Sunday’s announcement that Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America, will once again be called by its Athabaskan name, Denali.

First, the trip: My colleague Alana Semuels wrote last week about Newtok, a tiny Alaskan village whose people realized they could no longer fight back the rising waters. Here’s more:

Many communities across the world are trying to stay put as the climate changes, installing expensive levees and dikes and pumps, but not Newtok, a settlement of about 350 members of the Yupik people. In 1996, the village decided that fighting Mother Nature was fruitless, and they voted to move to a new piece of land nine miles away, elevated on bedrock. ...

Alaska sits on the front lines of climate change. But the rest of the nation is getting warmer, too, and so communities across the country may soon have to face some of the same problems. That’s one reason President Obama is visiting the region this week.

“What’s happening in Alaska isn’t just a preview of what will happen to the rest of us if we don’t take action,” Obama said in a video ahead of today’s visit. “It’s our wakeup call.”

But, as we noted earlier, the president’s “wakeup call” is likely to be overshadowed by a mountain.

Here’s the background to why North America’s tallest mountain, known locally for centuries as Denali (“the high one” or “the great one”), is called Mount McKinley.

In 1896, gold prospector William A. Dickey named the mountain for William McKinley of Ohio, “who had been nominated for the Presidency.” But McKinley, who entered the White House the following year, never visited Alaska, and was assassinated at the start of his second term in office. The mountain has been known nationally by the name of the 25th president until now.

The Alaska Dispatch News has more:

Talk of the name change has swirled in Alaska this year since the National Park Service officially registered no objection in a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C.  

The tallest mountain in North America has long been known to Alaskans as Denali, its Koyukon Athabascan name, but its official name was not changed with the creation of Denali National Park and Preserve in 1980, 6 million acres carved out for federal protection under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The state changed the name of the park’s tallest mountain to Denali at that time, but the federal government did not.

Jewell’s authority stems from a 1947 federal law that allows her to make changes to geographic names through the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, according to the department.

“I think for people like myself that have known the mountain as Denali for years and certainly for Alaskans, it's something that's been a long time coming,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, whose department announced the name change, told the newspaper.

Alaska’s congressional delegation, the newspaper reported, welcomed the news. As you might expect, lawmakers from Ohio—McKinley’s home state—did not.

House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican of Ohio, said he was “deeply disappointed.” Congressman Bob Gibbs, another Republican, described the president’s move as “constitutional overreach.” While Tim Ryan, a Democratic congressman, said: “We must retain this national landmark’s name in order to honor the legacy of this great American president and patriot.”

Ohio Governor John Kasich, a Republican candidate for president, has now commented on the change: