Denali

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.

Related Blog Posts

  • Little Diomede
    Field Report

    Wild Alaska 2017 Field Report

    August 23, 2017 | Field Report

    Thursday, July 6, 2017 - Home / Anchorage, Alaska

    Read More

    Golden Circle
    Field Report

    Circumnavigation of Iceland, 2017 Field Report

    July 31, 2017 | Field Report

    Friday & Saturday, June 2 & 3, 2017 - Reykjavík, Iceland / Embark Ocean Diamond

    Read More

    Antarctic Sunset
    Blog Post

    The Best Places for Stargazing Around the World

    July 25, 2017 | Blog Post

    On August 21, the moon will pass in front of the sun and the sky will turn completely dark in the middle of the day. Total solar eclipses like this occur approximately once every 18 months, but they’re usually only visible from less than half a percent of the Earth’s surface. This will be the first total solar eclipse visible in the United States since 1979.

    Read More

  • Puffin, Iceland | Brent Stephenson
    Blog Post

    Arctic Animals: A Guide to Key Wildlife Species

    June 26, 2017 | Blog Post

    From Alaska and northern Canada to Greenland and Scandinavia, exploring the Arctic ranks among the world’s greatest adventures. For us, one of the most rewarding aspects was seeing the incredible array of Arctic animals that manage to survive in these harsh landscapes.

    Read More

    Narsaq, Greenland
    Blog Post

    Viking History: How Erik the Red Settled Greenland

    May 31, 2017 | Blog Post

    If you’re only casually familiar with the history of the Vikings, you might think of them as the fearsome seafaring warriors who left their Scandinavian homes in search of wealth, raiding countless coastal sites along the way.

    Read More

    Great Barrier Reef
    Infographics

    2018: 26 Countries, 52 UNESCO World Heritage Sites [Infographic]

    May 4, 2017 | Infographics

    In 2018, Zegrahm will be visiting 52 amazing UNESCO World Heritage Sites in over 25 countries! The United Nations Educational Scientific & Cultural Organization is a specialized agency of the UN that maintains a list of important natural or historical sites, whose preservation and safe-keeping are deemed important for the world community.

    Read More

  • Island Sky
    Infographics
    Lanzarote, Canary Islands
    Blog Post

    2018 Travel Bucket List

    March 6, 2017 | Blog Post

    Where will your travel dreams take you in 2018? Here are just a few once-in-a-lifetime experiences Zegrahm can help you check off your bucket list next year.

     

    Read More

    Kyoto, Japan
    Infographics

    2017: 34 Countries, 90 UNESCO World Heritage Sites [Infographic]

    February 14, 2017 | Infographics

    In 2017, Zegrahm will be visiting 90 amazing UNESCO World Heritage Sites in over 30 countries! The United Nations Educational Scientific & Cultural Organization is a specialized agency of the UN that maintains a list of important natural or histroical sites, whose preservation and safe-keeping are deemed important for the world community.

    Read More

  • Jaguar, Pantanal, Brazil | Mark Brazil
    Blog Post

    What Was Your Favorite Wildlife Experience of 2016?

    December 28, 2016 | Blog Post

    We recently reached out to our field staff, to find out what their favorite wildlife experiences of 2016 were. From South America to Australia’s Kimberley, our staff have traveled the world this year. Below, enjoy their stories.  

     

    Read More

    Gullfoss Waterfall, Iceland
    Field Report

    The Untamed North: Iceland to Greenland 2016 Field Report

    October 12, 2016 | Field Report

    Thursday & Friday, July 28 & 29, 2016 - Reykjavík, Iceland / Embark Sea Adventurer

    Read More

    Zodiac Cruising in Alaska
    Infographics

    Choosing an Alaska Cruise [Infographic]

    August 25, 2016 | Infographics

    Alaska inevitably wows visitors with awe-inspiring scenery, abundant wildlife, and a long, colorful history. With more coastline than the rest of the states combined, exploring by ship is one of the best ways to see Alaska's many wonders. And, there is no shortage of cruises to choose from, ranging from mega-ships to private yachts.

    Read More