America’s highest mountain, a household name and the answer to countless geography quiz questions, is about to get a new name.
President Obama in Anchorage on Monday will announce the renaming of Mount McKinley, honoring the 25th president, to Mount Denali, an Athabascan name used by generations of Alaska Natives that means “the great one.”
The White House said Obama would rename the continent’s tallest peak in order to improve relations with Native Americans. As a central part of the Athabascan creation story, Denali carries cultural importance to many Alaska Natives.
Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, said in an interview Sunday that the new policy announcement would have a concrete as well as psychological effect on Alaska Natives. “It’s symbolic,” Kitka said, “but the practical thing is now on all the maps and all the descriptions it will have the traditional name. That is wonderful, it is timely and the right thing to do.”
William McKinley, an Ohio politician elected president in 1896 and assassinated just six months into his second term, never set foot in Alaska.
In 1896, a gold prospector exploring the mountains of central Alaska received news that McKinley, a defender of the gold standard, had been nominated as a candidate for president. “In a show of support, the prospector declared the tallest peak of the Alaska Range as ‘Mt. McKinley’ — and the name stuck,” the White House said.
Since then, there have been efforts to change the name to Denali.
Alaskan elected officials have tried several times since 1975 to get the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to consider making Denali official. In 1980, the park surrounding the peak was renamed Denali. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) recently included language in a spending bill to restore the mountain’s native name.
But the Obama administration says Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has the authority to change the name under a 1947 law that established the naming board if the board does not act within a reasonable time.
“In changing the name from Mount McKinley to Denali, we intend no disrespect to the legacy of President McKinley,” said Interior Department officials said in prepared documents. “We are simply reflecting the desire of most Alaskans to have an authentically Alaskan name for this iconic Alaskan feature.”
Earlier, the Columbus Dispatch newspaper said it was time to “end the perennial defensive action” by the Ohio delegation. It said, “Ohio’s congressional representatives should let Denali be Denali.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) fired off several tweets Sunday evening indicating that he was “disappointed” with the move to jettison McKinley’s name.
“This decision by the Administration is yet another example of the President going around Congress,” he tweeted, adding a moment later, “I urge Admin 2 work w/ me 2 find alternative ways 2 honor McKinley’s legacy somewhere else in the natl park that once bore his name.”
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report