WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will change the name of North America’s tallest mountain peak from Mount McKinley to Denali, the White House said Sunday, bestowing the traditional Alaska Native name on the eve of a historic presidential visit to Alaska.
By renaming the peak Denali, an Athabascan word meaning “the high one,” Obama is wading into a sensitive and decades-old conflict between residents of Alaska and Ohio. Alaskans have informally called the 20,320-foot mountain Denali for years, but the federal government recognizes its name invoking the 25th president, William McKinley, who was born in Ohio and assassinated early in his second term.
“With our own sense of reverence for this place, we are officially renaming the mountain Denali in recognition of the traditions of Alaska Natives and the strong support of the people of Alaska,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
The announcement came as Obama prepared to depart early Monday on a three-day visit to Alaska, becoming the first sitting president to travel north of the Arctic Circle. As part of his visit, Obama is attempting to show solidarity with Alaska Natives, and planned to hold a round-table session with a group of Alaska Natives just after arriving Monday in Anchorage.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who had pushed legislation for years to change the name, said Alaskans were “honoured” to recognize the mountain as Denali — a change in tone for the Alaska Republican, who had spoken out against Obama’s energy policies in anticipation of his visit to her state.
“I’d like to thank the president for working with us to achieve this significant change to show honour, respect, and gratitude to the Athabascan people of Alaska,” Murkowski said in a video message recorded atop the mountain’s Ruth Glacier, with cloudy snow-capped peaks behind her.
The state of Alaska has had a standing request to change the name dating back to 1975, when the legislature passed a resolution and then-Gov. Jay Hammond made a request to the federal government. But those efforts and legislation in Congress have been stymied by members of Ohio’s congressional delegation.
It was unclear whether Ohio leaders or others would mount an effort to block the change. There was no immediate response to inquiries seeking comment from House Speaker John Boehner and other Ohio lawmakers.
The White House cited Jewell’s authority to change the name, and Jewell issued a secretarial order officially changing it to Denali. The Interior Department said the U.S. Board on Geographic Names had been deferring to Congress since 1977, and cited a 1947 law that allows the Interior Department to change names unilaterally when the board fails to act “within a reasonable time.” The board shares responsibility with the Interior Department for naming such landmarks.
The peak got its officially recognized name in 1898, when a prospector was exploring mountains in central Alaska, the White House said. Upon hearing the news that McKinley, a Republican, had received his party’s nomination to be president, the prospector named it after him and the name was formally recognized.
The White House noted that McKinley never visited Alaska, and said the site is significant culturally to Alaska Natives and central to the Athabascan creation story.