What's in a name? To Alaskans, plenty if it's Mt. McKinley

Alaskans are trying again to change the name of Mt. McKinley to Denali, meaning 'The Great One'

Bullied by winds at 35 below zero, Lonnie Dupre arrived at the summit of the highest peak in North America and knelt. He could see the mammoth Alaska Range made small below.

"You get on top of Denali and everything just looks like bumps in the road," said Dupre, who last month conquered the 20,237-foot mountain on a solo climb.

Don't tell Dupre, but he got the name wrong.

According to official U.S. maps, the mountain known to climbers as well as most Alaskans as Denali is officially Mt. McKinley, named for William McKinley, former Ohio governor and 25th president of the United States. 

But Alaskans once more are going into the breach and asking Congress to change the name to Denali, a native Koyukon Athabascan word for "The Great One" or "The High One." The mountain sits in Denali National Park, so named in 1975.

"We are taking our stand," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who on Wednesday filed a bill to rename the mountain Denali once and for all.

"I'll just point out that there's a lot of things in Ohio that are already named after McKinley," Murkowski said in a phone interview. "This is no affront to our former president; this is all about ensuring that respect for the land and respect for the native people of the region is afforded."

Ohio, however, clearly expected this.

Two weeks ago, Ohio Rep. Bob Gibbs, a fellow Republican, introduced a House bill aimed at retaining the McKinley name, saying the landmark is a testament to the former president's "countless years of service to our country."

The Gibbs bill would prevent the U.S. Board of Geographic Names from considering Alaska's attempts to change the mountain's name under a policy that says no landmark titles can be considered if related legislation is pending before Congress.

Ohio representatives file such a bill every two years to essentially stymie Alaska's efforts.

Murkowski knows that the board, a federal agency whose entire reason for being is to maintain uniform geographic names across the nation, isn't about to go against policy. Breaking the stalemate would require Congress to change the policy, a tactic the senator said she is considering.

This time, though, Alaskans have an ace up their sleeve. Newly elected Sen. Daniel Sullivan grew up in the Buckeye State and counted Ohio residents among the top donors in his successful bid to oust Democrat Mark Begich.

Sullivan did not immediately respond to requests for an interview, but he issued a statement.

"The Athabascan people of Alaska already named this great mountain thousands of years ago. They called it Denali, the 'Great One.' Denali absolutely belongs to Alaska and its citizens – and with all due respect to my colleagues and the good people of Ohio, where President McKinley was born and where I have many friends and family, the mountain is not theirs to name."

In others words, Sullivan, a co-sponsor of the bill with Murkowski, prefers Denali.

So do many Alaskans. They name their kids Denali. Or their dogs. In Anchorage, you can walk down Denali Street and find the Denali Backcountry Lodge, the Denali Center and the Denali Building. More than 250 active Alaska businesses have “Denali” in their name. The Denali Federal Credit Union cashes their checks.

Yet 3,000 miles away in Canton, Ohio, an estimated 200,000 people visit the grave of William McKinley every year, said Kimberly Kenney, curator for the McKinley Presidential Library and Museum.

McKinley was the third U.S. president to be assassinated, after Lincoln and Garfield. He died in 1901, six months into his second term.

"He's not one of the presidents that people think of first, but when he died, it was like when Kennedy got shot. It was a horrible time for the country," Kenney said.

She said naming the surrounding park Denali was a good compromise, and the mountain should stay McKinley.

"We understand why the Native Alaskan people might want to change it, but from our perspective we would still like to honor the president by leaving the name the same," she said.

The mountain was named for McKinley in 1896 by a gold prospector before the Ohio governor became president, according to the Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, a kind of geographic bible. But McKinley never set foot in Alaska, Murkowski said, and she and others have argued that the name is an arbitrary honor.

Dupre, the mountain climber who made headlines for his January ascent, lives in Minnesota and says the standoff baffles him.

“If Denali or Mt. McKinley was in Ohio, that would be different," Dupre said. "I don't understand the argument, really."

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