On Sunday, the Obama administration announced that it was renaming America’s highest mountain “Denali”, an Athabaskan language term of reverence for the majestic peak, which translates to “great one” in English. By directing his Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, to restore the name “Denali” to the mountain, the Obama administration struck a symbolic blow at decades of cultural imperialism. The name change was signed by Jewell on Friday, but the announcement was not made public until Sunday.
The peak has been officially known as Mt. McKinley since 1917, although a gold prospector first gave it that title in 1896, because then presidential candidate William McKinley (R) supported the gold standard. McKinley was U.S. President from 1897 until 1901, when he was assassinated by Leon Czolgosz.
Alaska natives have long sought to restore the name Denali to the peak, and Alaska politicians in both parties have pushed for the name change for decades. Moderate Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski sponsored legislation to enact the name change in every session of Congress since she was first elected, but until Sunday her efforts had been in vain. On Sunday, she thanked the president for acting, stating:
For centuries, Alaskans have known this majestic mountain as the ‘Great One.’ Today we are honored to be able to officially recognize the mountain 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 Athabaskan people of Alaska.
However, outside of Alaska, many Republicans were not at all pleased with the president’s decision. Karl Rove, who incidentally is writing a book about McKinley, complained:
The 25th president gets overlooked too much already. Would hope the president would find another appropriate way to honor McKinley.
However, it was Republicans from McKinley’s state of Ohio who really blew a gasket over the renaming of the mountain. Ohio Rep. Bob Gibbs went ballistic issuing a statement blasting the decision:
Congress passed the law in 1917 establishing the name of Mount McKinley, and another act of Congress is required to make any future name changes. President McKinley is a well respected American hero who deserves to be honored and I hope my colleagues will join with me in stopping this constitutional overreach. President Obama has decided to ignore an Act of Congress in unilaterally renaming Mount McKinley in order to promote his job-killing war on energy. This political stunt is insulting to all Ohioans.
There is a reason President McKinley’s name has served atop the highest peak in North America for more than 100 years, and that is because it is a testament to his great legacy. 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. 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.
Ohio Governor and GOP presidential hopeful John Kasich fumed on Twitter that the president has once again overstepped his bounds. Ohio GOP Senator Rob Portman moaned that Obama had abused his authority by not getting congressional approval for the name change.
Ohio Republicans are fervently resisting the name change, even though President McKinley never set foot in Alaska, nor did he have any particular connection to the area. While Ohio GOP politicians grouse that the name change is insulting, the true insult is their insistence that reverence for President McKinley should take precedence over the wishes of the native peoples that live in the shadows of the great mountain.
The insult is compounded by the fact that William McKinley presided over the massacre of indigenous peoples during a period of American expansion, justified under calls for “manifest destiny.” McKinley’s greatest atrocities were not conducted against Native Americans, but rather against Filipinos, 200,000 of which were slaughtered by U.S. forces while McKinley was President. Nevertheless, the cruel irony is not lost on the native people of Alaska. Ohio Republicans would rather honor an imperialist president who crushed indigenous people in the Pacific than respect the folks who live near the slopes of Denali.
President Obama was right to restore the name Denali, to America’s most majestic peak. While renaming the over 20,000 foot high mountain is at best, a symbolic gesture, it is an important one that recognizes the dignity of the Athabaskan people of Alaska.
As for President McKinley, perhaps Ohio Republicans can band together to name a hill in Ohio after him. However, they don’t necessarily need to, because there is still a modest sized Mount McKinley in Los Angeles County, California that rises a mere 4926 feet above sea level. While it is not nearly as impressive as Denali, it is a much more appropriate peak for bearing the name of a man of William McKinley’s stature and historical significance.