Mount McKinley is now Denali: Obama renames the tallest mountain in North America.

No Longer Running for Office, Barack Obama Renames a Mountain

No Longer Running for Office, Barack Obama Renames a Mountain

The Slatest
Your News Companion
Aug. 31 2015 11:54 AM

The Tallest Mountain in North America Is Now Called Denali 

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The mountain formerly known as McKinley.

Photo by: Mike Powell/Getty Images

President William McKinley never traveled to Alaska. But in 1896 a gold prospector named William Dickey heard that McKinley had just won the Republican presidential nomination, and decided to dub North America’s tallest mountain peak in his honor. McKinley would go on to become our 25th president, and the mountain would thenceforth be known throughout the land as Mount McKinley.

The problem was that this particular peak already had a name. Far before it became Mount McKinley, members of the Native American Koyukon tribe had dubbed the 20,000-foot mountain Denali, which fittingly means “the high one” in the tribe’s Athabascan language. And Sunday, on the heels of his historic trip to highlight climate change in the Arctic, President Obama announced that he was changing it back.

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“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,” Obama’s Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement.

Not everyone is pleased, including House Speaker John Boehner, who issued this statement:

There is a reason President McKinley’s name has served atop the highest peak in North America for more than 100 years, and that is because it is a testament to his great legacy. McKinley served our country with distinction during the Civil War as a member of the Army. He made a difference for his constituents and his state as a member of the House of Representatives and as Governor of the great state of Ohio. And he led this nation to prosperity and victory in the Spanish-American War as the 25th President of the United States. I’m deeply disappointed in this decision.

The mountain’s name has been a source of tension between Alaskans and lawmakers in McKinley’s (and Boehner’s) home state of Ohio, who have clung tightly to the name ever since it was formally passed in 1917. Alaskans continue to refer to the peak as Denali, and have had a standing request to officially change the name back since 1975, when the state’s legislature passed a resolution but saw its efforts thwarted by an Ohio congressman.

So it’s no surprise that Ohio lawmakers are angry today. But some Native leaders aren’t all that pleased with the president either. That’s because even as he preaches a respect for natural resources and has finally made this name change a reality, Obama just this month gave the OK for more oil and gas drilling offshore. Now the Times reports that Native leaders, along with conservationists and climate activists, are gathering to protest Arctic drilling as Obama arrives in Anchorage on Monday.

Rachel E. Gross is the science web editor at Smithsonian.