Monday, August 31, 2015

The Name Game

If you are coming here expecting me to rant and rave about President Obama changing the name of the tallest mountain in the United States today, you are in for some bitter disappointment.  As a lover of history, I fully embrace the decision to return Mount McKinley to its original name: Denali.

There seems to be a misconception that the mountain was named in honor of President William McKinley after his assassination in 1901--that perhaps in their shortsighted historical perspective, Americans of that time demanded that the tallest peak on the continent bear the name of this "great hero".  But the McKinley name was actually put on the mountain by a gold prospector after McKinley was just nominated for President by the Republican party in 1896 (a process by the way that didn't involve caucuses and primaries or any direct voting by the electorate--and instead was controlled by party bosses who were usually engaged in back-room dealings and power-brokering).  Renaming the mountain was actually a campaign publicity stunt.

It should also be pointed out that Alaskans themselves do not call the mountain "McKinley".  Most would be quick to correct you that the mountain's name is "Denali".  The state legislature (dominated by Republicans) voted to change the designation back in the 1970's.  And one of their Republican Senators introduced a similar measure in Washington several times--only to have it blocked by Senators from McKinley's home state of Ohio.  Last night, House Speaker John Boehner--of Ohio--tweeted his displeasure with President Obama's "unilateral decision" to remove their "hero" from the mountain.  Nevermind that 99.99999% of Ohioans have never--nor will they ever--actually see the mountain.  It's a lot like the liberals in California and New York being "offended" that a guy in Georgia has a Confederate flag flying in his yard.

Besides, the "original" name sounds a lot cooler.  "Denali" means the "Great One" or "High One" in the native Athabascan language.  That certainly captures the grandeur of the mountain and the surrounding national park (which has been Denali for decades as well) than "the 25th President of the United States."  You have to admit that European explorers and settlers chose really boring names for things as they expanded across the globe.  State names get more exotic as you head west--Colorado and California are much more original than New York and New Jersey.  And how enticing would it be to go to the "Sandwich Islands" for your anniversary--compared to Hawai'i?

If we are going to go back to "original" names, might I suggest that Lake Superior change to the Ojibwe title of "Gitchigami"--meaning "great sea" (not Gitche Gumee as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Gordon Lightfoot incorrectly called it).  Again, a much more exotic sounding name than "Superior"--which the French Voyageurs put on it because it was the "lake upstream from Huron". 

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