Returning Mt. McKinley back to Denali
When I was a kid, I remember saying names of mountains and creeks in Montana like Squaw Peak, Hightit Mountain or Whorehouse Creek.
I didn’t think about it — those were the names and you just said them. In grade school, we giggled.
Now they’re called Wife Peak, Mammary Mountain and Working Girl Creek. This didn’t make sense to me, because women’s roles, occupation and body parts were still being referenced.
Curious, I googled it. A University of Chicago website says, “Offensive toponyms fall into two categories. One type denigrates racial and ethnic groups. The other variety offends folks bothered by rude or otherwise impolite references to body parts and other no-no’s.”
A toponym is a place name that’s derived from a topographical feature. The mountain states have quite a few.
Alaska still has toponyms some would find offensive. Mostly they’re in far-flung, roadless areas in the bush, where most people don’t go.
But the controversy around the campaign to rename Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in Alaska and North America, isn’t about an offensive toponym.
It’s about setting things right.
The 20,320-foot mountain long has been known as Denali (”The Great One”). It was central to the Koyukon Athabascan tribe’s creation story and is of significant cultural importance to Alaska’s indigenous people.
In 1896, a prospector named the mountain after William McKinley, who later that year was elected the 25th U.S. president. McKinley had never been to Alaska.