FAIRBANKS — The White House announced on Sunday that President Obama has restored the name Denali to North America’s tallest peak, ushering out the controversial era of Mt. McKinley.
The mountain, which has been officially named after the 25th president of the United States since 1917, will now be recognized by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names by its original Koyukon Athabascan name, which means “Great One.”
“This designation recognizes the sacred status of Denali to generations of Alaska Natives,” a White House news release stated.
The news was immediately hailed by supporters as a step forward for Alaska and its people.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who re-filed legislation in February to rename the mountain Denali, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Gov. Bill Walker each promptly sent out news releases praising the move.
“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,” Murkowski stated.
“Alaska’s place names should reflect and respect the rich cultural history of our state, and officially recognizing the name Denali does just that,” Walker stated.
The peak’s official name has been a long-running irritation for many Alaskans, since William McKinley never saw the mountain or even set foot in Alaska before he was assassinated early in his second term. A prospector informally named the mountain after McKinley in the late 1800s, and the name was adopted by Congress two decades later.
Gov. Jay Hammond and the Alaska Legislature first asked that the name be formally restored to Denali in 1975. The Alaska Geographic Board has recognized the name of the peak as Denali since then, putting it at odds with its official federal designation as Mt. McKinley.
The national park that surrounds the mountain was renamed in 1980 by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, shifting from Mount McKinley National Park to Denali National Park and Preserve.
A 40-year battle between politicians in Alaska and Ohio has been waged since the Legislature weighed in, with members of Congress from McKinley’s home district repeatedly blocking efforts to restore the name Denali.
However, the issue has received added attention in the past year after decades of low-key feuding.
In July, the Daily Show did a segment on the controversy, interviewing University of Alaska Fairbanks Vice Chancellor Evon Peter about Denali’s significance to Athabascans.
Peter called Sunday’s declaration “huge,” saying it represents “a wonderful step toward reconciliation with indigenous people.”
He praised the decades-long efforts of many Alaskans to restore Denali as the mountain’s official name.
“I think that a lot of people have put a lot of interest and a lot of effort into this,” he said.
The name change also began to receive more support in Ohio, with The Columbus Dispatch writing in a July editorial that “Ohio’s congressional representatives should let Denali be Denali.”
Obama has directed Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to use her authority to rename the mountain Denali, according to the White House.
“This name change recognizes the sacred status of Denali to many Alaska Natives,” Jewell stated in a U.S. Department of the Interior news release. “The name Denali has been official for use by the State of Alaska since 1975, but even more importantly, the mountain has been known as Denali for generations. With our own sense of reverence for this place, we are officially renaming the mountain Denali in recognition of the traditions of Alaska Natives and the strong support of the people of Alaska.”
Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518. Follow him on Twitter: