I love North Dakota, but for a certain part of me Alaska will always be home.
That’s because I was born there, in Anchorage (we lived in Wasilla). My father was raised in Alaska. My grandfather helped build the Alaska-Canada highway and started an engine shop in Fairbanks at the road’s terminus.
We moved to North Dakota, where my mother’s family is from, in 1990 after my father retired from the Alaska State Troopers. I love this state. It’s where I met and married my wife, and where I’ve raised my children. Yet still, I will always have an emotional attachment to the Last Frontier.
As such, it sparked my interest when President Barack Obama decided to change Mt. McKinley’s name to Denali. Or, at least, change it officially for the federal government. Alaskans addressed this issue in 1975. As a kid in the Alaska public school system I learned about Denali, North America’s highest peak, which people from the “lower-48” called Mt. McKinley.
Frankly, I’m glad President Obama has officially changed the name, though I’m not surprised that he’s done in the most provocative way possible. While we can debate President McKinley’s merits and accomplishments, he really did nothing to deserve having America’s tallest mountain named after him.
McKinley wasn’t president during the process through which the Alaskan territory was sold to the United States (that would be James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Johnson). Nor did McKinley have anything to do with the territory known as “Seward’s Folly” becoming a state in 1959 under Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In fact, McKinley’s only connection to Alaska and the mountain that would bear his name was that the gold prospector who “discovered” the mountain, Frank Densmore, named it after the presidential candidate he was supporting in the 1896 presidential election.
That’s a pretty thin case for naming a mountain after someone. Especially when compared to the case the Athabaskan people, who lived around the mountain for centuries before Densmore “discovered” it, have for calling the peak Denali.
History is important, and I like that place names often reflect the history that surround them. Renaming this peak Denali is an embrace of the real history of the mountain, rather than the happenstance of the previous name. I might feel differently if McKinley were some important figure in Alaska’s history, but he wasn’t.
Calling Denali by the name of some politician who never had anything to do, really, with Alaska is a bit like renaming some landmark in Ohio after Sarah Palin. Love Palin or hate her, it just wouldn’t make a lot of sense.
Could President Obama have handled it better? Absolutely, but such is his style. The man is a divider, not a uniter. But the decision was the right one.