The trouble arises not in naming things but in the significance of the names we give them.
Mountains, rivers, cities, streets — they all have to have names. Names are key to directions and important to communication so that we know we’re talking about the same thing. But we don’t always agree on the names we choose for things.
Such has been the case for Alaska’s Mount McKinley, since it was first suggested by a gold prospector that the 20,237-foot mountain, the tallest in North America, be named for Ohio’s William McKinley. McKinley at the time had been nominated for president and was a proponent of the gold standard. The unofficial name gained support after McKinley was assassinated a few years later during his second term in 1901 and was made official in 1917 when Congress designated a national park around the mountain.
For the Athabaskans, the Alaskan natives, the mountain already had a name: Denali, meaning “the great one.” There have been many attempts over the years to restore the Denali name. On Monday, President Obama announced he had instructed his Interior secretary to sign an order officially changing the name. This wasn’t done on a whim. The move has the support of many in Alaska, including its all-Republican congressional delegation. It has upset those, including Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, who said the name McKinley had honored the president’s legacy for more than 100 years. But the Denali name had been in use for centuries before McKinley’s brand.
Fortunately, we now have airports with which we can honor late presidents.
McKinley had no real tie to the Alaska peak, having never been to Alaska nor made any provision for it. Ironically, McKinley, who authorized the creation of Mount Rainier National Park in 1899, can lay more claim to Washington state’s tallest mountain than he can to Denali.
There is a reason to give mountains and rivers, cities and counties the names that are at least similar to those used by regional Indian tribes; it’s a recognition that there were peoples and cultures here before Europeans explored and settled the Northwest.
Captain George Vancouver, during his explorations of the Northwest Coast, named many geographical features, including in 1792 Rainier for British Navy Adm. Peter Rainier; Mount St. Helens for the British ambassador to Spain, the Baron St. Helens; and Mount Baker, named for Vancouver’s third lieutenant, who being first to spot the mountain at least had that connection to it. By 1794, when Vancouver saw Denali, he mentioned the mountain in his journals but did not give it a name, perhaps having run out of pals to name things for.
As with McKinley, some have suggested a name change for Mount Rainier. The problem comes in settling on which name. The Yakama Indians call the mountain Tahoma for “the mother of waters.” The Puyallup Indians have a request before the U.S. Board of Geographical Names to have the name changed to Ti’Swaq’, meaning “sky wiper.” Others will make the case that the mountain has transformed the name Rainier and made it mean more than a long-dead British admiral ever could.
Any name change will have to come with popular support, but the name we use when talking about the mountain ought to have a meaningful connection to it.