WASHINGTON, D.C.: President Obama’s three-day trip to Alaska this week will literally change the map of the nation’s 49th state.
Mount McKinley — the 20,237-foot mountain and the tallest in North America — has been renamed Denali, as it was originally known by Alaska Natives before it was renamed to honor President Wil- liam McKinley.
The mountain, which sits in the 6 million-acre Denali national park, has been known as Denali in Alaska since 1975. Under an order signed by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the Denali name will also take effect for all federal usage and, therefore, on all official maps.
The order was signed Friday, but the White House asked that it be announced Monday as part of Obama’s trip to Alaska to highlight the effects of climate change in the Arctic. The White House said the name change “recognizes the sacred status of Denali to generations of Alaska Natives.”
Denali, meaning “the great one” in the Athabaskan language of Alaska natives, was the original name of the mountain. But when European Americans discovered it in the 19th century, they renamed it Densmore’s Mountain and, later, Mount McKinley in an effort to boost the presidential candidacy of Republican William McKinley.
But as Jewell noted in her order, “President McKinley never visited, nor did he have any significant historical connection to, the mountain or to Alaska.”
The name became official with the Mount McKinley National Park Act in 1917.
The Obama administration’s action breaks a 40-year impasse over the name of the mountain. Alaska has been petitioning for a name change since 1975, but a bipartisan effort by Ohio’s congressional delegation has blocked the effort by introducing bills requiring it to be named after McKinley, who was born in Niles, Ohio and buried in Canton.
And for years, just introducing the bills was enough to block a name change. That’s because the United States Board on Geographic Names has a long-standing policy of not making name changes under consideration by Congress.
“While the board does have a policy of deferring action when a matter is being considered by Congress, contradictory bills on this issue have been proposed by various members of Congress since the late 1970s,” Jewell said in her order. A 1947 law gives the secretary the authority to change names on her own when the board does not act in a reasonable time.