From Alaska, Why Naming Things Is Important

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My sister Sammye out with the dogs, The Great One behind her

You’ve heard of Destiny’s Child – but how about Denali’s Child?

Read on about a whopper of a story involving an assassinated president, Native Alaskan lore, a long-brewing political fight over North America’s tallest peak, and even a lesson about the power of naming things.

This week, the Obama administration restored that mountain’s original name, which is Denali, a native Alaskan word for “the great one” or “the tall one.” It had been called Mount McKinley for a century or more.

I lived many years in the 49th state, off-and-on until I was 30. This week’s news kind of surprised me — I guess I thought the name had already been changed. (Just Denali National Park in 1980 — the mountain itself was left unchanged then.) My friends and family in Alaska are delighted by the news.

“Everybody up here has referred to it as Denali for years anyway and says it’s about time,” my brother-in-law Andy McGinnis told me.

“But we can still call Wayne Gretzky ‘the Great One,’” added my buddy Beth Bragg, sports editor at the Alaska Dispatch News (which used to be the Anchorage Daily News, where I worked after college).

A long time coming

President William McKinley, Mount McKinley, Denali, Alaska, mountains, naming, branding

President William McKinley

For more than 100 years, Denali was called Mount McKinley, for William McKinley, the nation’s 25th president, who never set foot in Alaska. (Read the full Dispatch story.)

Alaskans always resented the slight to the Native culture — and the big-footed arrogance of the Lower 48. And newcomers are quickly instructed, “Real Alaskans don’t call it that.” (Some Alaskans are so real they can’t even say the word “McKinley.”)

For decades, Alaskans on all sides of the political spectrum wanted “McKinley” replaced with “Denali.” But Ohio, home of the president McKinley, kept blocking the effort. This week, Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he is “deeply disappointed” by the change.

A lesson in branding

My friend Mike Vanausdeln lived in Anchorage for about 10 years before settling in North Carolina. He wrote this trenchant piece for his branding company.

“By calling the mountain Denali, Alaskans were re-affirming their self-reflecting brand that said we were more authentic than those peons who called it Mount McKinley. The power of Denali proves the power of naming.

“I can hear my Alaskan friends now: ‘Oh, big deal. We’ve been calling it Denali for years.’ Just by saying that, Alaskans (and former Alaskans like myself) are stating who we believe we are when we lived there.


Alaskan family values

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My brother-in-law Vince casts his line in one of Alaska’s countless rivers.

My favorite response came from another brother-in-law, Vince Pokryfki. He says the second-highest mountain in the Alaska Range is officially known as Mount Foraker, also named for an Ohio politician. The Native name is Menlale, meaning Denali’s Wife.

The third-highest is Mount Hunter, after a relative who paid for a climber’s expedition way back when. Its original name, Begguya, means Denali’s Child.

“Doesn’t get any better – the perfect family,” Vince says.

And that’s a story even John Boehner ought to love.

RELATED: The Alaskan governor I knew (from The Seattle Times)

RELATED: Family photos from The Great Land

RELATED: A water pipeline, you say?

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