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Alaska Renews Fight to Change McKinley Name to Denali

August 21 2001 at 8:55 AM
roger  (no login)

Many thanks to Stephen Gruhn for passing this along.
The Anchorage Daily News in its Aug. 19, 2001, issue has an article on Alaska's efforts to change the name of Mount McKinley to Denali.

The article is headlined Tanana Chiefs renew fight to restore peak's name to Denali by Liz Ruskin.

It notes that the State of Alaska has supported the name change for 26 years (the legislature voted in 1975 in favor of the change) but that it has been opposed by Republican Rep. Ralph Regula, who is from McKinley's district in Ohio.

The Tanana Chiefs Conference, a Fairbanks-based non-profit Native organization, is now renewing the fight.

The 20,320-foot mountain is central to the Athabaskan story of creation, said anthropologist Jim Simon, who works for Tanana Chiefs.

"You're not even supposed to talk about it that much, because it is sacred," he said, noting that Tanana Chiefs president Steve Ginnis referred questions about the mountain to him, a non-Native employee. "To simply talk about it makes it secular. It demeans it. And to name it after someone -- to give it proper respect, you would never give it a name after a person."

It also asked that the name of the neighboring peak be changed from Mount Foraker to Denali Be'ot, meaning "Denali's Wife."

Joseph Foraker was an Ohio senator, a contemporary of McKinley's.

The conference recently made its case to the Alaska Historical Commission. The commission voted unanimously to recommit itself to the effort and to have its chairwoman, Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, write a letter to the U.S. naming board, which she did.

"Alaskans feel a sense of ownership of that mountain and feel as though it would be more appropriate for there to be an Alaska name on a peak that is so symbolic of the state," Ulmer said last week.

There's really nothing the national board can do, said Payne, the board's executive. At his agency, the McKinley-Denali file is 3 feet thick and lives in its own filing cabinet. By 1980, more than 20,000 people had weighed in on the subject, running 68 percent in favor of Denali, according to the board. The percentage was slightly higher in Alaska and lower in Ohio.

Normally, the board gives a great deal of weight to the place names locals use, but the board's written policy says it won't take up a name question as long as the issue is before Congress.

Rep. Regula makes sure it is.

Regula, with 25 years of practice, is ready for the argument that McKinley never went to Alaska.

"I don't think Garfield was ever in Colorado. I don't believe Van Buren was ever in Arkansas," he said, working his way down the list of the 15 mountains named for U.S. presidents.


A Sidebar incidentally deals with the the history of the name.

It is headlined, "Athabaskan legend tells of Denali long before McKinley lived, died
YAKO: Culture's first ancestor built mountain from the waves" by Liz Ruskin.
Yako, the "Athabaskan Adam," lived alone in the area that is now north of Denali. He learned that a war chief to the west, across the ocean, had many beautiful young women living in his village. Yako built a canoe and went there. A village woman gave him her daughter, but as he paddled away with the girl in his canoe, the war chief chased them across the sea.

Both men had special powers to control the ocean. The pursuer put massive waves in Yako's way, but Yako took a wave-quelling stone from his braided hair. As the stone skipped from wave to wave, it created a smooth path for Yako to sail. Finally, the warrior used his greatest spear and heaved it as hard as he could at Yako's back.

Yako deflected the spear by turning the oncoming rear wave into a mountain of stone. The spear struck the summit and glanced upward, high into the sky, over the water until it touched the crest of a bigger wave coming from the east, which Yako turned into an even bigger mountain of stone. This created Denali and the other peaks. Yako and his wife went on to have children, and the descendants became the Athabaskan people.

The word Denali is derived from the Koyukon Athabaskan word Deenaalee.

"This name does not mean The Great One,' as commonly believed, but is instead based on a verb theme meaning high' or tall,' " Fairbanks linguist James Kari wrote in "Shem Pete's Alaska."

Kari identified nine variations of the Athabaskan name. Six translate as "The High One" and three mean "Big Mountain," he said. They range from "Denaze" to "Dghelaay Ce'e."

That story begins in 1896 with William Dickey, a gold prospector who liked McKinley's championship of the gold standard. Dickey wrote that he also chose the name because McKinley's nomination for president was the first news he learned on his way out of the Alaska wilderness. By some accounts, he chose the name to needle his companions, who favored silver coinage.

[I edited this post because I forgot to put a headline and the URL's]

This message has been edited by dipper on Aug 21, 2001 8:58 AM

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