Obama Changes Mountain’s Name to Its’ Indigenous Name, but Continues to Steal Indigenous Land*
By Gyasi Ross
Two weeks after the Obama administration granted Royal Dutch Shell permission to resume drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean for the first time since 2012; President Obama threw a bit of a bone to Native people and changed the name of “Mount McKinley” back to the Athabascan name “Denali.”
Really, the name change wasn’t a big deal. In all honesty, it was merely a “correction.” To me, this was just one of the tiniest of micro-corrections that Alaskans of all colours wanted—and as far as I am concerned, this was NOT a “Native issue” at all.
Granted, these tiny symbolic corrections do have some limited value and are sometimes a necessary part of healing. Yet, unless they are accompanied by substantive commitments to make things better, they’re pretty much a hollow sentiment.
Ok, about the name-change: The former “Mount McKinley,” the tallest mountain on Turtle Island, will finally and officially be called by its rightful name. Denali, which means “The Great One.” That is what the mountain has been known as since time immemorial.
This is the name that was given by the Koyukon Athabascan, the Native community that has lived beside the great Denali for more than twenty thousand years. Presumably living beside something for such a long period of time gives familiarity to know what something should be called.
William McKinley, whom the mountain was inexplicably named after for a short period of time, never even visited the glorious mountain, never stepped foot into the beautiful state of Alaska, and didn’t even live long enough to know that the mountain was named after him.
William McKinley had no connection to this mountain; he did nothing to deserve it.
Moreover, the fact that the mountain bore his name for any period of time, to me is a testament to extreme privilege: a few privileged folks with the power to arbitrarily change a mountain’s name devalued not only Alaska Natives who knew this mountain since before here was here, but also Alaskans of ALL colours who know that this is the proper name. Cool.
But the substantive effect is that this matter of a name change was a trade-off. The Obama Administration, as decent as it has been in many regards with Tribes, has been mediocre on environmental and sacred site issues. To wit recently, the President signed the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, which exchanged the Oak Flat part of Tonto National Forest, a site of spiritual significance, to Resolution Copper Mining in a slimy 11th hour deal.
As mentioned above, Obama allowed deep sea drilling for oil and gas which Tribes almost unilaterally opposed.
In fairness, Obama did veto the Keystone XL Pipeline in February and that was considered a victory for environmental groups.
Yet, it’s been checkered at best.
I know that many publications (including this one) are purporting that “The Great One has returned.” Which to me, is kinda goofy—Native people know that this majestic mountain never went anyplace, that the Creator put it there for a reason and that its power and sacredness wasn’t dependent upon a name. However, the sacredness and power of our homelands and sacred sites are dependent upon us treating them with respect and deference. How we treat those sacred sites means a lot more than what we call them.
I’m glad that Obama officially changed the name of Denali to what Athabascans and all Alaskans have always called it: Denali. That’s cool. But it would be much better if he did that in conjunction with a commitment to treating our homelands and sacred sites with the respect that they deserve.