For decades, the Alaska Federation of Natives has been pushing to restore the name of Mount McKinley, the tallest peak on the North American continent, to its original Koyukon Athabascan name, Denali. Earlier this week, following Obama’s endorsement of the change, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that Denali would henceforth be the new, old name of this magnificent geological landmark.
Conservatives immediately protested with the usual talking points claiming abuse of presidential powers, even as the internet spit out a fantastically deluded meme claiming that “’Denali’ is the Kenyan word for ‘Black Power’.”
This claim is so obviously wrong that it could easily have been a parody put out by The Onion. Alas, so many people obeyed the command, “Like and Share to Spread Awareness,” that the meme’s been effectively outed as a demographic Rorschach test: if you believed the lie without laughing, you’re too old to be a Millennial. (I will confess that part of my poor, paranoid brain wondered if the meme was whipped up by Mark Zuckerburg’s minions as another secret experiment aimed at manipulating Facebook subscribers by messing with their page postings. Who knows, really?)
Secret machinations and political theater aside, what does restoring the name “Denali” mean in the broader, cultural plane? Names are so critical to our understanding of the world that they drive our sense of identity. To name is to affirm the power of creation. As recorded in the Book of Genesis, it is by naming that God created Heaven and Earth, then Day and Night, thus simultaneously creating the primordial dualism that bedevils modern Western thought. It is by continuing to name things that we give order to “all the familiar landmarks of my thought – our thought,” wrote philosopher Michel Foucault in "The Order of Things," “the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography – breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to take the wild profusion of existing things.”
In Denali’s case, the conceptual landmark is an imposing geographic landmark as well, one that has given rise to countless stories and shaped generation upon generation as it anchored Native peoples to the land. (You can listen to Athabascan storyteller Patricia Wade (from the Alaskan village of Chickaloon) tell stories of Denali here.)
Earlier this year, the blog, “Athabascan Woman,” run by Angela Gonzalez, featured a round-up of Facebook comments regarding the “Denali” question. Vera Schafer affirmed: “That’s the real name. The people who came and changed every name didn’t know each place had a name. The people who wrote about Alaska said it was ‘vast wastelands.’ It wasn’t because people were already living here and everything had a name. Every hill, knoll, river bends, slough had a native name.” Another commentator, Darlene Reena Herbert, wrote: “There is a word for everything on earth and beyond in Dinjii zhuh ginjik” (Native people language).”
That language, however, is not American English. Worse, the word itself, meaning “great one,” refers to the physical properties of the mountain, and not to the achievements of mortal men who become immortal through great deeds. “Alaska is full of glaciers and other places named for white male explorers,” Alaska transplant Amy Price McCord wrote in an email to me. These places include Prince William Sound and Mt. Edgecumbe (thought to be named after George, earl of Edgecumbe; its original Tlingit name is L’ux).
The names systematically affirm a colonialist mentality that subjugates rather than respects the land, exploiting a theologically-informed attitude to nature that has enriched coffers for centuries. Now, that model is beginning to crumble in the face of overwhelming evidence of climate change. The president’s trip to Alaska is partly driven by the widespread recognition that it’s one of the places in the world most vulnerable to its immediate effects.
The partisan refusal to recognize climate change is driving its own set of memes linking "Denali" to "Denial." Hence there is political peril in restoring the names of people, places, and things using the names originally bestowed on them. Return the names to their original forms, return the land to the people? For some Conservatives, renaming is a sign that the world is run amok with political correctness, but also something more when the President of the U.S. endorses it. To restore a name symbolically acknowledges that other cultural systems have legitimacy and merit, which correspondingly confirms that the landmarks of my thoughts are not the same as the landmarks of your thoughts.
Hence the Conservative plaint that liberals are godless atheists, which is correct to the extent that “God” is understood as a holistic unifying principle permeating all aspects of socio-political life. Four centuries ago, this used to be the case when kings ruled by divine right and life was rotten for the 99 percent who weren't directly related to him. But it’s now the 21st century, and the U.S. elects its leaders. Welcome to post-modernity! For Alaskans, however, restoring the mountain’s name to “Denali” merely recognizes lived reality, insofar as people who actually reside in the state never called it “McKinley.” Locally, on the official as well as the vernacular plane, it’s always been Denali.
Jewell’s statement released earlier this week stressed that “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.” In an email to me, augmented reality artist Nathan Shafer (whose collaboration with Angela Gonzalez on an Athabascan comic book can be seen here), confirmed her assessment. “Denali is what we have been calling it for years. Nobody in Alaska calls it Mt. McKinley.” He adds: “This is also [just] one mountain, which represents a change in how we respect First Nations people and their cultures. I would like to see where I live, in Cook Inlet, revert to what the Dena'ina Athabascans call it: Tikhatnu.”
Sarah Palin might have been able to see Russia from her house, but a good chunk of Alaskans can see Denali from their porch. Jeanne Devon is editor-in-chief of the Alaskan political website The Mudflats. In an email to me, she writes: “To me personally, as one who sees the mountain every day the weather allows, I’ll be happy it is no longer named for a person, regardless of who that is.”
The land itself demands political recognition, but for First Peoples, who live with the land in a way that few in the lower 48th can fully comprehend, this means recognizing them too. Denali is not just a word, and restoring its name confirms its identity as part of a living culture. “It felt like Alaska Natives were given back something taken away from us," Gonzalez writes. "People may think colonization is just something that you read about in text books. It is a very real thing when you see names like Mount McKinley take over our place names. People from all over the world travel to Alaska to see the nation’s highest peak. Now, they will see a place where the very President himself thought it was important enough to recognize and honor Athabascan people.”