America's tallest mountain peak, Mt. McKinley, is getting its old name back. President Barack Obama, who is on a three-day tour of Alaska, highlighting the impacts of climate change, announced on Sunday the restoration of the Alaskan Native name of Denali to the mountain.
During his visit to the state, President Obama will meet with leaders from Alaskan native communities, along with Governor Bill Walker and Senator Lisa Murkowski, to discuss ways to strengthen cooperation between the federal government and indigenous groups.
Rosita Worl, president of nonprofit group Sealaska Heritage Institute, which works to promote Alaskan native culture, welcomed the name change as a much-needed recognition by the larger American society about the existence of indigenous people.
"Western culture has such a history of coming in and renaming things without any regard for indigenous names," she said. "I think [the name change] is a departure from earlier policy where they were trying to change us and suppress our culture."
The Athabascan name, meaning "the high one" or "great one," was used until 1896, when a prospector who was exploring the central Alaskan mountains began pushing for the peak to be named after then-presidential candidate William McKinley. The federal government officially designated the peak as Mt. McKinley in 1917.
For the tribes, it was an example of American cultural imperialism.
Most Alaskan natives believe that everything — the universe, trees, animals, rivers, and mountains — have a spirit, said Worl, who is a part of the Tlingit tribe and an anthropologist by training. "We know that the spirit of our ancestors continues to be present in our homeland, and they are probably as happy as we are to know that the spirit of Denali does not have to live under the shroud of Mt. McKinley anymore."
Denali, standing at more than 20,200 feet above sea level, is visible from many parts of Alaska. While folklore may vary from tribe to tribe, the mountain occupies a significant position in all the cultures, said Will Mayo, an Athabascan Indian and a former president at nonprofit Tanana Chiefs Conference.
"[The name change] makes us feel like a part of our home has been restored to us," Mayo told VICE News.
The action also has much wider significance for Alaska, which is in the throes of rapid climate change. Average temperatures across the state have increased by about 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the past half century, nearly twice the national average, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Glaciers are melting and methane-rich permafrost is thawing at an alarming rate, while sea levels rise. The changing climate has already started impacting Alaska natives who are acutely dependent on the environment for their livelihoods. Eroding coastlines have forced some communities to relocate, and declining populations of animals such as polar bears, walruses, seals, and caribou means hunting gets tougher and tougher. The combination has dealt a blow to the traditional lives of Alaskan tribes.
The gesture of restoring the mountain's original name, can thus also be seen as a metaphor about the greater problem of climate change that is threatening to upset the lives of many such communities all over the world.
"To me it says, we had something for thousands of years and while we can't go back to the past, we can try to preserve the conditions of the past," Sealaska's Worl said.
But the decision to rename the mountain was met with fierce criticism from leading Republican: McKinley, the 25th president, was an Ohio Republican.
House Speaker John Boehner said he was "deeply disappointed" in the decision. "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," Boehner said in a statement, citing the president's military service in Spanish-American War and the Civil War.
Ohio governor and Republican presidential hopeful John Kasich joined Boehner in criticizing the move, as did Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who called the decision "yet another example of the President going around Congress."
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