On the eve of President Obama’s visit to Alaska, it was announced that Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America, will revert to Denali, its original Inuit name.
I never gave it much thought, but one of our strategists, Michael Van Ausdeln, lived in Alaska for more than a decade and he has a few thoughts about the name change:
To me, this has been a long time coming. Alaskans have long called the mountain Denali. It’s situated in Denali National Park and the word, denali, means “The Great One.” (Not be confused with the nickname of NHL great Wayne Gretzky.)
If you’ve ever seen the mountain, then you know it’s taller than you originally thought. When I first saw it, I thought it was one of the smaller mountains in the park. Then someone pointed to a peak that was ABOVE the clouds, and there stood The Great One.
The importance of Denali to Alaska.
What is interesting to me is that, while changing the name probably means little to those of us who live in the Lower 48, calling it Denali was a stubborn point of pride for many Alaskans. Up there, there is a kind of satisfaction in believing that the rest of the US is not really authentic. That they don’t get Alaska, an enormous state of lakes, rivers and mountains that can test even the hardiest of us.
In a way, by calling the mountain Denali, Alaskans were re-affirming their self-reflecting brand that said we were more authentic than those peons who called it Mount McKinley. I mean, who even remembers what William McKinley actually accomplished? The power of Denali proves the power of naming.
I can hear my Alaskan friends now: “Oh, big deal. We’ve been calling it Denali for years.” Just by saying that, Alaskans (and former Alaskans like myself) are stating who we believe we are when we lived there.