What's In a Name?

Ingrid Nixon|September 23, 2015|Blog Post

For almost two decades, Ingrid Nixon's work in expedition tourism has propelled her about the planet. From Antarctica to Greenland, Madagascar to Easter Island, she enjoys sharing the wonder of exploration and discovery with like minds. Originally from Western Washington, Ingrid was recently living in Interior Alaska where she worked for the National Park Service in Denali National Park and Preserve. As Chief of Interpretation, Ingrid headed the park's visitor services and education programs, including the new Murie Science and Learning Center, which facilitates science and science education in eight of Alaska's northern national parks.

I confess, I did not see it coming. When news broke that Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell had officially restored the name of North America’s highest peak to Denali, my first reaction was, “Really?” Followed quickly by, “It’s about time.”

Since time immemorial, the Koyukon Athabaskans called the eternally snow-covered 20,320 foot mountain, Deenaalee. It’s only been since 1897 that it’s been officially labeled on maps and other documents as Mount McKinley. That’s the year a newspaper reporter-turned-prospector William Dickey published an article about his Alaskan adventures in The New York Sun. In that article, he wrote about how he named—as if such a feature wouldn’t already have a name?!—the great peak after presidential candidate William McKinley of Ohio, a strong proponent of the gold standard. The United States Geological Survey latched on to the name, making it “official.” Thus, the moniker intended as a prank to goad silver prospectors stuck.

In the mid-70s, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the mountain’s name to an Anglicized version of the Athabaskan name: Denali. But that represented only the state’s perspective. Since then, the Alaska legislature and representatives to the US Congress have regularly appealed to the US Board of Geographic Names/USGS to restore the mountain’s Native name, but resistance from the Ohio delegation thwarted the effort. Recently, Secretary Jewell saw a way through the decades-long standoff via a law that gives her office the authority to resolve long-standing issues related to place names.

In my twenty-some years of living in Alaska, it seemed to me that visitors more often referred to the peak by the name of the Ohio politician, who never visited Alaska himself. These were often the same visitors who would point at one insignificant peak after another asking, “Is that Mount McKinley?” But if those visitors were lucky enough to see Denali—which can be a challenge in the summer months due to weather—their jaws would drop as they realized how much they had lowballed their expectations as to the magnificence of the peak.

It seemed that the longer people are in-state, the more they refer to the mountain as Denali, or simply, The Mountain. I suspect many Alaskan’s responded to news of the name change as I did—it’s about time.

So what does Deenaalee mean? Linguists say that it means The High One, which is fitting. On a clear day it is visible from both Anchorage and Fairbanks, hundreds of miles away. However, one day I was in the recording studio working with an Athabaskan Chief who was telling his people’s legend of how the mountain came to be. When he got to the point in the story when I wanted him to describe what the name means, he said to me in a booming voice, “It does NOT mean the High One. It means the Great One!” I smiled. I can live with that.

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