Denali Gets Its Name, Native Alaskans Get Recognition

Denali peaks (Photo by rickz available on Flickr)

Last Sunday, President Barack Obama made good on his 2008 campaign promise to improve relations between the federal government and Native Americans. He announced that Mount McKinley’s name would be restored to Denali — a name with deep cultural significance to the Koyukon Athabascans. His announcement is part of a wider campaign to improve relations with Native Alaskans and bring attention to the effects of climate change they are already experiencing.

Athabascan Ties to Denali

The Athabascans and their ancestors have called the Alaskan interior their home for millenia. The majestic snow-capped mountains, dense forests, and cool, clear rivers can mask the harshness of the environment. Survival in the Alaskan wild is not easy. In the winter it’s not unusual for temperatures to be in the -50s and often in the 80s during the summer. In addition, summer days require patience and endurance to withstand the hordes of mosquitoes.

Unsurprisingly, the Athabascans’ spirituality is linked to their adaptations to and reverence of the environment. They believe that all creatures, and some inanimate objects, have knowledgeable spirits and stories.

The Athabascans attach one such story — their creation story — to Denali, or “the great one.” As the story goes, long ago, a young man and his wife were stranded at sea with nothing but big waves surrounding them. When the young man threw a harpoon at one of the very tall waves, a miracle occurred — the wave turned into Denali. On the mountain, he and his wife gave birth to the Athabascan people.

A Gold Prospector’s Patriotism Slights a People

When settlers began colonizing the Alaska frontier, the history and wisdom of the Athabascan people was pushed aside. The renaming of Denali serves as only one such example.

After a gold prospector emerged from exploring the Alaska Range in 1896, he heard that William McKinley had just won the Republican presidential nomination. To show his support for the candidate, he declared that the tallest peak in Alaska should be named in honor of McKinley as a show of support. In 1917, the federal government officially recognized the name.

Efforts to restore the peak’s name began in Alaska in 1975, but politicians from Ohio — the birthplace of President McKinley — routinely opposed the name reversal. To compromise, the national park surrounding the mountain was named Denali National Park and Preserve in 1980. But that wasn’t enough. In January of this year, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski introduced legislation to rename the peak. Ohio lawmakers, predictably, worked to block the move.

Caribou on the Road in Denali (Photo by Andrew E. Russell available on Flickr)

More Than Just a Name

Much to the chagrin of Ohio’s senators and representatives (does the average person from Ohio even know who McKinley is?), the Obama administration decided to restore Denali’s name last Sunday by order of the Secretary of the Interior. But the move is more than just a name change. The announcement is one step in a larger effort to enhance collaboration between the federal government and Alaskan Natives.

Specifically, Obama is expanding government support for programs that allow Alaska Natives to be more involved in developing their own natural resources. This includes an initiative and funding to include them in the management of Chinook salmon fisheries, a youth exchange council that prepares Alaskan youth to become “young stewards of the Arctic way of life,” and a program allowing them to serve as advisers to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Unlike Congress, which has repeatedly ignored Native American wishes, Obama has sought greater engagement with Native Americans during his presidency. Each year, he hosts a White House Tribal Nations Conference, which brings tribal leaders from across the country together. In June of last year, he visited Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota and took part in a powwow to honor Native Americans who served in America’s foreign wars. Obama’s recently launched Generation Indigenous initiative (Gen-I) seeks to improve the lives of Native American youth through new investments and increased engagement.

“There’s no denying that for some Americans, the deck’s been stacked against them, sometimes for generations, and that’s been true of many Native Americans,” Obama said at the time. “But if we’re working together, we can make things betters.”

Greater Recognition of Climate Impacts on Native Alaskans

The deck is unfortunately stacked against Native Alaskans as the impacts of climate change are beginning to occur. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, diminishing the range of winter sea ice and allowing heavy storm surges to batter the Alaskan coastline and interrupt winter hunting season for Alaska Natives. Northern Alaska is losing more than a football field’s worth of land a day to coastal erosion and sea level rise.

The people of the town of Kivalina, 83 miles above the Arctic circle in Alaska, will likely have to abandon their homes due to climate change. For generations, the Iñupiat people of the region have hunted gigantic bowhead whales from camps atop the sea ice that stretches out from the town’s icy shores. But now the ice is too thin for them to hunt, and soon, powerful waves will endanger the village.

“Global warming has caused us so much problems,” said Joseph Swan, Sr., a Kivalina elder. The ice “does not freeze like it used to. It used to be like 10 to 8 feet thick, way out in the ocean.”

Kivalina is not the only Alaskan town facing the immediate impacts of climate change. Towns up and down the Alaskan coast are in similar danger.

In this photo released by the Coast Guard, the community of Kivalina, Alaska is shown.  Coast Guard and military personnel in an outreach program to foster understanding and relations, as well as provide essential medical and veterinary services visited Kivalina a community of 400, with half of the community under the age of 18. (Coast Guard photo/ Lt. Cdr. Micheal McNeil)
The community of Kivalina in August (Photo by USCG Press available on Flickr)

Praying for a Miracle

It’s hard not to see the similarity between the Athabascan creation story of Denali and the terrifying current situation facing Native Alaskans. Like the young man and his wife lost among the waves, powerful waves caused by climate change are endangering whole communities. Where do the people of these communities throw their harpoon? Will there be some miracle that saves them, their homes, and their culture from climate change?

We can keep praying for a miracle, but, in the meantime, Obama’s decision to protect Native Alaskan culture by renaming Denali is a good reminder to us all what we stand to lose by clinging to dirty energy sources and disrespecting the environment.

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About the Author

I'm an organic-eating, energy-saving naturalist who composts and tree hugs in her spare time. I have a background in environmental law, lobbying, and field work. I believe in God; however, I do not call myself a Christian or a Jew or a member of any religion. I am merely someone who finds a spiritual connection to all humans and the environment. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, and .