Grades 6-8 | Argumentative | Text-Dependent
Prompt: Today you will read two articles concerning the debate over the name of America's tallest mountains. Write an essay in which you take a position about whether the mountain should be officially named Mt. McKinley, in honor of former President McKinley or Denali, as it has always been known by native Alaskans. Be sure that your essay includes details and evidence from the texts that support your position.
For most Alaskans, there’s only one name for the mountain known as Denali.
Reestablishing this original place name, as President Obama did this week by executive order, honors the first peoples of the region, who have been connected to this land for thousands of years. There has been some pushback from elected officials in Ohio where President McKinley was born, despite the fact that McKinley never set foot in Alaska.
Alaskan place names are significant. Sometimes these names reveal physical attributes of the place. Sometimes the names hint at the resources (seen or unseen) at that location. Other times these place names are integrally tied to the stories and beliefs of a particular culture.
The name Denali originates from the Koyukon Athabascan word, Deenaalee, which translates to “the tall one” or “the high one.” The Koyukon inhabit a large portion of the northwestern interior of Alaska. Their language (known as Denaakk'e) is geographically the most widespread of the 11 Athabascan languages spoken in Alaska.
I have lived and worked in Alaska for over two decades. I raised my family first in the Interior and later moved to the Kenai Peninsula. My family and I return each summer to the Peninsula to run our seasonal business. I also continue to collaborate with indigenous communities throughout the state on various community-based projects.
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This recent name change comes as no surprise to most Alaskans (Native and non-Native alike) who have always called the mountain Denali.
By any name, the mountain catches the attention of newcomers. Many of whom seek to capture its beauty through paintings or conquer it by reaching the summit. But Denali’s geographical and cultural significance long predates the arrival of Europeans.
Knowledge of this mountain is embedded in the indigenous languages. It figures prominently in the local folklore and oral history of the Athabascan groups who call the region home.
The Dena’ina Athabascan, whose homeland is located farther to the southwest, call the mountain Dghelay Ka’a or “big mountain.” Athabascan words, stories and even riddles reveal not only the importance of Denali as a significant landmark, but also hint at the sentient qualities of this place.
Last April, at the first Alaska Native Place Names Workshop (part of the Council of Geographic Names Authorities), Koyukon linguist Eliza Jones expressed this sentiment.
“It’s not just the name of the place, it’s the history that’s important,” Jones said.
A long path
The national debate over the mountain’s “official” name started back in the mid-1970s, when the Alaska legislature attempted to reestablish the original name given to the mountain by Alaska’s first peoples.
This 20,000-foot mountain is a well-known landmark and dominant feature of the Alaska Range.
Denali, the highest point on the North American continent, is a popular destination for tourists and the inspiration for naming the nearby Denali National Park and Preserve. Athabascan anthropologist Karen Evanoff, a friend and colleague, in response to this official name change, wrote to me:
"The original names of places by indigenous people were given for many reasons and speaks to the deep relationship with the environment. To know, use and understand the meaning of the names is an honor to the land and acknowledges the vital importance of these roots in today’s vastly changing world."
Changes to place names have been a routine part of a larger agenda to erase indigenous languages and cultures by colonial powers. While we may not see decades-old debates of this sort in the national and international media every day, there are many places throughout the world where indigenous place names are being reestablished. Addressing “colonial naming” in New Zealand, for example, a recent amendment states that “any future naming or name alterations would give preference to original Māori names.”
Throughout Canada, First Nations communities have moved to reestablish their place names. Ingrid Kritsch, research director of the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute, says, “traditional place names can point not only to significant physical sites for Aboriginal peoples, but can also embody important intangible cultural values.”
Gwich’in communities have recently celebrated the restoration of 414 of their traditional place names, which are now officially recognized by the government of the Northwest Territories.
This official recognition of Denali’s true name is a sign of deep respect for Alaska’s indigenous peoples. This cannot undo the past and erase the destruction brought about by colonization. However, it can set a new way of thinking about place names, the people who inhabit those places and the important relationships they continue to maintain with the land.
FAIRBANKS -- Republican U.S. Rep. Bob Gibbs of Ohio rose to the defense of the late William McKinley Wednesday with the latest in a long series of Buckeye State bills aimed at ending the Denali discussion and preventing a name change for the highest mountain in North America.
"Located in Alaska, Mount McKinley is the highest point in North America and has held the name of our nation's 25th President for over 100 years," Gibbs said in a press release. "This landmark is a testament to his countless years of service to our country."
McKinley, who hailed from Ohio, has schools, a bridge, a town, a park and other features named after him in his home state. He is buried in Canton, Ohio, home to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the McKinley National Memorial, located on McKinley Monument Drive. A gold prospector named the Alaska mountain after the president in 1896 and McKinley's assassination in 1901 silenced serious debate about the choice until the 1970s.
In 1975, the state adopted the Koyukon Athabascan name Denali, a decision it confirmed in 2001. But the federal naming authorities always balked at a change, in part because of the opposition from Ohio, where there is more interest in the man than in the mountain.
Denali roughly translates as "the high one," according to linguists specializing in Alaska Native languages.
The 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act changed the name of the national park the peak is located in from McKinley to Denali but kept the mountain in McKinley's name. That's how it remains today, with Ohio blocking any move by Alaska to boost Denali.
Introducing the bill to keep the mountain's current name is enough to prevent the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which deals with names and places, from taking any action to consider Denali. The federal board, formed in 1890 in part to deal with the confusion arising from the many Alaska names added to the vocabulary of U.S. geography, has a longstanding policy to defer to Congress.
"The U.S. Board on Geographic Names will not render a decision on a name or its application if the matter is also being considered by the Congress of the United States," says a board policy that existed long before it became an official written rule in 1981.
The existence of Gibbs' bill, like those introduced every two years for decades, shows the board that a matter is under consideration by Congress. No hearings are necessary and approval of the bill is not required, according to the board. The late Sen. Ted Stevens once tried to put a time limit on this tactic but failed. So members of the Alaska delegation introduce competing bills to change the name to Denali but the stalemate continues.
In Alaska, some people use the names interchangeably but Denali appears to have gained a lot of ground over the years. Away from the peak, there is a Denali bank, credit union, borough, street, hotel, hardware store, brewing company, towing company, massage parlor and more, not to mention an SUV, a state park and a national park. While the late president's name is not on quite so many signs in Alaska, a bank and an animal hospital are named McKinley, as are a capital management company, streets, apartments and other institutions.
For many years, Ohio Rep. Ralph Regula blocked the Denali debate in Congress by including a rider on legislation. Starting in 1991, he introduced a one-sentence bill every two years to accomplish the same end: "Notwithstanding any other authority of law, the mountain located 63 degrees 04 minutes 12 seconds north, by 151 degrees 00 minutes 18 seconds west shall continue to be named and referred to for all purposes as Mount McKinley."
After his retirement six years ago, other members of the Ohio delegation began to carry the McKinley banner. As long as someone from McKinley country remembers to file a bill every two years and the U.S. Board on Geographic Names keeps its current policy, the official federal name will remain McKinley, unless the Denali forces can get a bill through Congress — which may be as difficult as Lonnie Dupre's winter solo ascent of the mountain this month.