Denali: an open letter to the President

Dear President Obama,

On August 30, you endorsed an order that restored the name of our country’s tallest peak to what the Alaskan natives have been calling it for centuries: Mount Denali. I think this was a wonderful gesture. While William McKinley was a good president and deserves our recognition, it doesn’t make sense to honor him with a mountain he has no real connection to, especially when the mountain already has a name that holds tremendous significance to some. But of course, the issue is more complicated than this simple equation. I can only imagine how much thought went into your decision, how difficult it was to weigh the wishes of Ohioans, who hold so much pride in the name Mount McKinley, against the wishes of Alaskans.

And that’s the problem, Mr. President. I can only imagine your motivation because you never told anyone what it was. You gave no speeches, no explanations, no statements about the name change or how you intended us to understand it. It came out of nowhere. Not only is this a slap in the face to Ohioans, who would have wanted a say in the commemoration of their former governor, but it also devalues what the gesture could have meant for the Alaskan natives. Accompanied by no apology, and representing the vision of you and your staff rather than the American people’s, the name change reads as little more than political posturing.

I don’t think you intended this, Mr. President. If the issue were solely about the name of a mountain, the understated announcement of the name change would have been more than sufficient. But it wasn’t about a mountain, not really. It was about the identity of the United States.

As I’m sure you’re well aware, both sides of the McKinley-Denali controversy base their claims in history. The Koyukon Athabascans have called the mountain Denali, or “the high one,” for thousands of years. Appearing in their creation story, the mountain has always held deep cultural significance for the native peoples. To have the official name be mount McKinley thus represented an insult to what they held as sacred. In 1975, the Alaskan legislature presented a bill to change the name back to Denali. The appeal was met with a compromise: the name of the park in which the mountain is located would change to Denali, but the name of the mountain would stay the same. Ohio senators blocked all subsequent appeals.

Those who defend the name McKinley point to the hundred-plus years of official precedent. In 1897, a gold prospector by the name of William Dickey saw the mountain from 40 miles away and proposed it be named after his favorite presidential candidate: William McKinley, a defender of the gold standard. After McKinley’s assassination in 1917, the Senate passed a bill officially changing the name of the mountain to McKinley as a way to commemorate his legacy as a Civil War veteran and the commander-in-chief during the Spanish-American War. Though locals continued to call the mountain Denali, schoolchildren throughout the U.S. learned the name of our highest peak as Mount McKinley.

At conflict in these histories are two fundamentally opposed visions of America. To support changing the name back to Denali is to acknowledge that it was wrong to change the name in the first place, to acknowledge the arrogance inherent in every “discovery” of the new world. It is an implicit apology for our history of imperialism and for our poor treatment of the Native American population. To support the name McKinley, however, is to say that we don’t have to make recompenses for our imperialistic past. It’s not arguing that we have a perfect history, just one that’s worth celebrating despite its flaws, even if that celebration comes into conflict with another group’s identity. You may not agree with the latter interpretation, but it’s important to understand it. It’s the reason Congress didn’t restore the mountain’s name. To bypass Congress and restore the name via executive order may garner the results you want, Mr. President, but it doesn’t address the fundamental conflict of these two visions of the past.

If you wanted to open up a dialogue and let us examine our imperialist sins, then by all means, make a speech and open a dialogue. Tell us why you changed the name; tell us why you think your vision of America is more accurate. If you wanted to apologize for our nation’s sins against the Alaskan natives, then by all means, apologize. And apologize with a promise to treat them better in the future. Otherwise, as The Atlantic journalist David A. Graham warns, “just as the renaming of Confederate monuments has prompted worries that it will distract from the need for material changes to improve the life of black Americans,” the renaming of the mountain will remain a purely symbolic gesture. But to say nothing at all is cowardly. It distances you from your decision when you should be willing, even eager, to defend it.

I’m glad you changed the name, Mr. President. But I wish you’d changed the attitude behind the name as well.

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