Denali Peak Closeup #2 2002

When I was a kid, I remember saying names of mountains and creeks in Montana, such as Squaw Peak, Hightit Mountain, and Whorehouse Creek. I didn’t think about it, those were the names and you just said them. In grade-school we giggled when we said Hightit.

Denali embarrassed girl

I don’t remember when the names changed, sometime when I no longer paid attention. Now they’re called Wife Peak, Mammary Mountain and Working Girl Creek. That still didn’t make sense to me, because women’s roles, occupation and body parts were still being referenced. Obviously guys did the naming way back when; And all they thought about were women (nothing’s changed on that one—should we be flattered or offended?)Denali female symbol

When they renamed them, shouldn’t they have removed the female references altogether? What’s wrong with names like Sapphire Mountain, or Very Tall Peak? (Or would that be offensive to blue or tall people?) As a female, I’m not offended; I just eye roll at the lack of imagination.

Curious, I googled this. According to a University of Chicago website, “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, sex, excrement, and other no-no’s.” (A toponym is a place name, derived from a topographical feature).

So there you go. The names changed, the maps changed, and the signs changed, along with countless brochures and websites. The mountain states have a lot of them.

Alaska is no exception. It still has its share of toponyms some would find offensive. Mostly they’re in far-flung roadless areas in the bush, where most people don’t go. However, the controversy around the campaign to rename Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in Alaska and North America, for that matter, wasn’t about being offensive.

It was about setting things right.

Denali with Fireweed

The 20,320 foot mountain’s original name was Denali. Then, in 1896, a prospector named the mountain after William McKinley, the twenty-fifth U.S. president, who was assassinated six months into his second term (McKinley had never been to Alaska). This mountain has been central to the Koyukon Athabascan tribe’s creation story and is of significant cultural importance to Alaska’s indigenous people.

In 1975, Jay Hammond, Alaska’s governor, initiated the effort to return the mountain’s name to Denali. Recently our Alaska congressional delegation began an aggressive campaign to change the name. It picked up momentum. Alaskans weighed in and signed petitions. Denali was the overwhelming choice. As it should be.

The people in Ohio, where President McKinley was from, felt strongly the McKinley name should remain for the nation’s highest mountain. A recent national television show (which shall remain unnamed) did a poor job of poking fun at Alaska’s quest to rename the mountain. In typical Lower 48 fashion, they didn’t present all the facts, just pointed out how people in Ohio were against the idea. I would bet many Ohio folks have never been to Alaska, but they didn’t want a namesake from their state removed from one of our greatest landmarks.

Denali in Winter

The Great One is the number one thing everyone wants to see when they arrive in Alaska. The first question people ask us when they visit is, where can I see The Mountain? I tell them you can see it from any high point in Anchorage. Go have a drink at the Crow’s Nest in the Captain Cook Hotel on the Cook Inlet side, or drive up to the Glen Alps in the Chugach Mountains that cradle our fair city. You will see it. Fog, haze, and clouds come and go. Be patient. You will see it.

Alaska tried 40 years to return the mountain’s name back to Denali. The Secretary of the Interior announced on August 30, 2015, that she signed an order to change the name, and President Obama approved it, one day before he visited Alaska. Timing is everything.

This mountain knows nothing of presidents, congresses, or people from Ohio. It is in Alaska and should have an Alaskan indigenous name, not one from a man that never set foot in this state. A name that speaks to us across time, that demonstrates greatness. Denali: The Great One.

Denali Mountain

Because it is. Unless you see it for yourself, up close and personal, it’s hard to believe that land can stretch so high up to touch the sky. I worked in an office for a dozen years where I looked at it every day. I got to know its personality at different times of the year. The bright pink alpenglow of winter, the purpled sunsets in spring, the oranges of autumn. The ‘snowcone in the sky’, I used to tell my kids. I’ve flown around it. I’ve landed on Ruth Glacier and gazed up at it. I’ve peered at it in my rearview mirror. I wish every American could do this. Then they’d understand why it was so important to Alaskans to change the name.

Sorry, Mapquest, USGS, Park Service and post-card-peeps. You have to make all those name changes now.

As far as toponyms go, The Land of the Midnight Sun is back in its karmic groove.

As it should be.

© Lois Paige Simenson and The Alaska Philosophaster, 2015, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to The Alaska Philosophaster with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.                      LIPSLips

Written by Lois Paige Simenson


  1. Don Plessas September 1, 2015 at 1:08 pm Reply

    Great article, Lois. You expresses in words many of my feelings about the naming of mountains etc.

  2. Kathy Flippen September 2, 2015 at 6:49 am Reply

    Thank you for saying this so eloquently Lois. I was born and raised in Ohio but I have lived in Alaska for over 36 years. I agree that things are now as they should be. This mountain and its name are truly Alaskan and the name should never have been changed in the first place.

  3. Patti Davis September 2, 2015 at 7:30 am Reply

    Very interesting . If more people understand the History of the name they would agree to return Denali as the rightful name .

  4. Caryn September 2, 2015 at 10:14 am Reply

    Right on! I love this Lois. Great job.

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