Mt. McKinley to Denali: Why North America's highest peak was renamed

President Obama's executive action capped a 119-year debate over the mountain’s name – but didn't necessarily end the controversy.

Andy Newman/Holland America Line/AP
In this Monday, Aug. 3, 2015, photo provided by Holland America Line, a woman gazes at Mount McKinley in Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. On Sunday, Aug. 30, 2015, President Barack Obama change thed name of North America's highest peak to Denali restoring an Alaska Native name with deep cultural significance.

On Sunday, President Obama changed the name of North America’s highest peak to Denali. The executive action capped a 119-year debate over the mountain’s name, although it did not necessarily end the controversy.

The move came ahead of Mr. Obama's trip to Alaska to talk about climate change issues and in a bid to fulfill campaign promises to strengthen the often-sour relationship between the federal government and Native American communities.

Denali, which in the indigenous Athabaskan language means “the high one” or “the great one,” looms over the bleak Arctic landscape in Central Alaska.  

But for more than a century the mountain was known as Mount McKinley, in what started as a nod to the 25th president William McKinley’s monetary policy.

If that sounds strange, you need to go back to 1896, when a gold prospector named William Dickey happened upon the peak and named it after the Republican candidate for president at the time, whom he supported because of McKinley’s vigorous support for the gold standard.

When Mckinley was assassinated by anarchist Leon Czolgosz in 1901, the name remained as a tribute to the slain president.

The origin of the name Denali goes back generations within indigenous populations and the mountain plays a pivotal role in local Native Americans' creation story.

Alaskans have pointed to the ongoing controversy over the mountain’s name as an example of the disconnect between locals and the federal government.  

In 1975, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the mountain to Denali, and the Alaska Legislature officially requested that the United States Board on Geographic Names (BGN) change the name of the mountain from Mount McKinley to "Mount Denali."

But in large part due to the spirited efforts of Ohio congressman Ralph Regula, the name honoring the former president stayed on the official federal registry. McKinley was a native son and served as governor of the Buckeye state.

After Mr. Regula’s retirement in 2009, a movement to change the peak’s name to Denali resumed.

In officially ordering the name change, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell pointed to a central irony about the president’s relation to the peak.

"The mountain was originally named after President William McKinley of Ohio, but President McKinley never visited, nor did he have any significant historical connection to, the mountain or to Alaska," the order from Jewell said.

Current lawmakers from Ohio have picked up the banner from Regula, taking to social media to vent their frustrations with the president’s decision and citing it as another example of executive overreach.  

Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio derided the name change in a series of tweets.

Senator Portman offered to work with the president to ensure that McKinley is honored somewhere else in the national park.

House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, who has represented his Cincinnati-area district for more than 25 years, also denounced the change.

"McKinley served our country with distinction during the Civil War as a member of the Army. He made a difference for his constituents and his state as a member of the House of Representatives and as Governor of the great state of Ohio, the speaker said in a statement. “And he led this nation to prosperity and victory in the Spanish-American War as the 25th President of the United States. I’m deeply disappointed in this decision.”

Lawmakers closer to the mountain, however, seemed to view the change as a respectful gesture to the native Alaskans who have lived there for centuries.  

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska, who had pushed legislation for years to change the name, recorded a video on the mountain’s Ruth Glacier where she said that Alaskans were "honored" to recognize the peak as Denali.

"I'd like to thank the president for working with us to achieve this significant change to show honor, respect, and gratitude to the Athabascan people of Alaska," Senator Murkowski said in front of the mountain’s starkly beautiful snowy backdrop.

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