Tales of the Unexpected
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Un-Renaming Denali

By Christine Byl

Denali Skyline
Photo credits: Christine Byl

I've lived in Interior Alaska for the past eleven years, about 100 miles, as the raven flies, from the highest mountain in North America. I have always called this formidable and beautiful summit "Denali," as do a majority of Alaska residents, including our three Republicans in Congress. Since President Obama just empowered Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to change the official name from Mt. McKinley to Denali, soon you'll be calling it Denali, too. 

For the past few days, I've been glued to the national media coverage centered on my home, and I'm thrilled that the rest of the world will finally call the mountain Denali. Unfortunately, in the rush to cover the big news, the media has been getting small but important details wrong, especially those related to the rights and identities of Alaska Native people. So instead of retelling the strange story of an obsequious explorer, a presidential hopeful, and the gold standard, I want to dig deeper, finding a route through the context surrounding Alaska's iconic peak.

On "Re-Naming"

Most papers have run some version of this headline, from Alaska News Dispatch, the Anchorage daily: "McKinley no more": North America's tallest peak to be renamed Denali". We know what this means at face value—the official name has been changed. But as my friend, Tlingit writer Ernestine Hayes, posted in response to the news, "May be more accurate to say 'un-renames.'" Her point is a good one, and it's no small quibble. Alaska Natives had been calling the mountain by various other names (Deenaalee was one) for nearly 10,000 years before it was actually renamed Mt. McKinley by a white prospector, James Dickey. Reverting the official name to Denali is a great stride, but it's important to call out the colonial impulse that ignited the debate in the first place.

Okay, so, here's where things get really interesting. We've now gone from Mt. McKinley back to the peak's real name. But what is a "real" name? Human language is so rife with nuance, sometimes it's hard to know. However, one way to really understand languages is to understand something about the people who speak them.

What is Athabascan? 

Many news sources have cited the name Denali as a form of the "Athabascan word," Deenaalee. But Athabascan is not strictly a language; it's a complex of related languages, including those spoken by eleven different groups in Alaskan (among them Ahtna, Dena'ina, Gwich'in, and Koyukon). Athabascan people migrated south through Canada and into the Lower 48, and family groups formed distinct cultures all over the continent; Navajo and Apache, some of the best-known tribes of the Southwest, are also Athabascan groups, and languages. If we're talking about more than one language, it makes sense to call them Athabascan, as a group. But if we're talking about Deenaalee, we should call it a Koyukon word, not just an Athabascan one. 

As Chad Thompson, a linguist who studies Alaska Native languages, puts it, Koyukon is as different from Dena’ina as French is from Spanish (both Indo-European languages). Would we describe a Mexican and a Parisian's words as functionally identical because they are both Romance languages? "Come on, an apple?—manzana, pomme, they're about the same." Hard to imagine, thankfully. So, why not reach for the same specificity when describing indigenous speech? To cloak related-but-distinct Native languages beneath one blanket description is to hide them, to homogenize them, another form of institutional oppression most English speakers don't think twice about. It's more out of ignorance than malicious intent of course. But ignorance, especially the willful sort, has consequences. Cultural invisibility is one.

Incidentally, the name "Athabascan" itself is another colonialist rabbit hole. Although the name is widely used among scholars and Native people (and the spelling I'm using is the one preferred by the Tanana Chiefs Conference, the tribal consortium of 42 Interior Native villages), it doesn't mean much to the people it describes. Politician Albert Gallatin first coined the term in 1836 when classifying North American languages, himself admitting, "I have designated them by the arbitrary denomination of Athabascans, which derived from the original name of the lake."  Said lake is in Canada, and its name comes from the English version of a Cree word, in the entirely different Algonquin language group. Huh? Exactly. It's no surprise that Athabascans prefer to call themselves "Dene," meaning person (in Koyukon, Dinaa, and in Dena'ina, Dena). Recently, this distinction is gathering steam among linguists as well.

What's a "Real Name" Anyway?

Most Alaskans—Athabascan, Inuit, black, white and Samoan, among others (we're very diverse)—know in our guts that McKinley wasn't the right name for the mountain. This is partly a symptom of the Alaskan tendency to look askance at things that come from "Outside," the local vernacular for the Lower 48. (Yes, this is ironic coming from a state that is functionally a colony, with most of our necessities coming from down South, including groceries, processed oil, and news. But that's a topic for another day.) While we agree that it's meaningless to call our grandest peak after a guy with no particular connection to or affection for Alaska, few people realize that the name "Denali" wasn't the only option.

The Koyukon origin word Deenaalee translates roughly to "The High One." But another—perhaps more?—legitimate choice would be Dghelay Ka’a, meaning "Big Mountain," from Dena'ina, within whose historic territory the peak actually stands. (Koyukon land was slightly further north and west.) Dghelay Ka’a is a tricky pronunciation for my Anglo tongue, with an unfamiliar "gh" sound and a glottal stop. Is the comparative ease of speech for whites why Denali became the de facto name? I don't know the answer to that, but it's worth noting that distinct Alaska Native languages have different words for the mountain we're calling Denali, with nuanced origins and meanings. (More from anthropologist Alan Boraas here.)

Despite a good case for a more strictly correct option, it makes sense to me to call the mountain Denali, and not only because I know for a fact we're not going to get another shot. First, Koyukon is the largest of the Dene language groups spoken in Alaska and so the word Denali has living meaning to a relatively large number of people. I love language best when it describes an active experience, not just a remembered one. The name Denali rolls off the tongues it was first spoken by, and that's a beautiful thing.

Looking at the summit

Also, Denali has deep mountaineering history, and despite the colonial impulse that can be implicit in ascents, it seems fitting that Denali's name is in the language of Walter Harper, a Koyukon man and member of the first ascensionists party, along with Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens, and John Tatum.

Harper has received far less coverage than his more famous (white) climbing partners, but as any alpinist knows, it takes an entire team to reach a summit, and Harper was key to the party's success. Hudson Stuck, the party's organizer, and Harry Karstens, the musher who would later become the first superintendent of what is now Denali National Park & Preserve, both praised Harper in their accounts of their 1913 climb. Stuck wrote that Walter Harper "ran Karstens close in strength, pluck and endurance...his kindness and invincible amiability endeared him to every member of the party."

I've been to 18,200' on The High One, my summit bid shut down by high winds and low health, and let me tell you, the combination of pluck and amiability at high altitude is a rare trait. As an alpinist, it pleases me to no end that Denali's Koyukon name has embedded in it a nod to an intrepid, historic indigenous explorer who deserves to be widely known.

You Say De-NA-lee, I Say De-NOLL-lee 

With the entry of Alaska's home peak into the national lexicon comes the likelihood that it will be mispronounced. (Sound familiar, those of you from Oregon? That's "ORE-ih-gun," not "Or-uh-GON.") The two acceptable pronunciations of Denali are De-NA-lee (rhymes with rally) or De-NOLL-ee (rhymes with dolly). In either case, the emphasis is on the 2nd syllable. Pronunciation amongst locals is split about 50-50 between those two options, and I don't know enough about spoken Koyukon to say if one is closer to the original pronunciation and emphasis of Deenaalee. (Anyone know? Please comment, with a source.)

One thing's for sure: there is no "Mount" or "Mountain" before or after the new name. Denali stands alone. This is true of almost all indigenous Alaskan language names for places. The use of Mt.—as in Mt. McKinley—is a common white naming tradition, probably due to the fact that most of these names came out of expeditions very concerned with summit and conquest. Native mountain names across many languages tend to refer instead to the character of a peak, its origin story, or the role it plays in a life on the land. Other relevant examples include the two adjacent peaks on the Denali massif, whose English names override Dena'ina translations: Mt. Foraker is Sultana, meaning "the woman" or Menlale, meaning "Denali's wife", and Mt. Hunter is Beyyugga, literally "its child", commonly translated as "child of Denali." These original names conjure a story instead of a single person of fleeting—or debatable—importance.

As Mark John, a fluent Yup'ik speaker and participant in the recent Alaska Native Place Names Workshop said, "When you know a place and the stories behind it, then you know what that place is for." This is perhaps the most important subtlety couched in the conversation about this big peak. What is a place for? Landmark places are used for all manner of things, least proudly as sites for extraction or receptacles for our egos, in search of a legacy or an entry on a peak-bagging list. But there are so many other things a place is for. Denali has been, for thousands of years, a place for harvesting food, orienting travel, provoking awe, creating weather. It's been a place for ravens and pikas and lichens and ice, for hunters and seekers. Those are the stories and the uses that this new, old name preserves.

So, it turns out the take-home message of a foray into the name Denali is the same as any probe behind the headlines: it's not simple!

Still, there are a few things I can unequivocally say. I want to end with rightful celebrations all around for this stunning peak finally reverting to a name that came from its own people, people living not on top of it but along it, calling it not a summit or a namesake, but a feature of their home. And most of all, three cheers for the fascinating and diverse pageant of human language and speech, especially when everyone, regardless of their power or position, has a voice to speak in the language they love.


About the Author 

image from www.beacon.orgChristine Byl is the author of Dirt Work: An Education In the Woods, a finalist for the 2014 WILLA Award in NF. She lives with her husband and old sled dog in a yurt off Stampede Road north of Denali National Park. More at http://www.christinebyl.com and https://www.facebook.com/cmbyl?fref=ts.



I am an on-going student of Alaska history and Alaska Native cultures, not an anthropologist, historian or linguist. If you have a correction or perspective to offer, please email me via my website or leave a comment below. I am always in search of more information.

Sources Consulted & Further Reading

Blogs & Websites:

Alaska Native Language Center at University of Alaska Fairbanks       

Alaska Native Heritage Center website

Talking Alaska: Reflections on the Native Languages of Alaska

"We know it's not McKinley, but is Denali the right name for our mountain?"

Books & Articles:

"Athabascan Languages and the Schools": Chad Thompson

Na'eda, Our Friends: A Guide to Alaska Native Corporations, Tribes, Cultures, ANCSA and More: Alexandra J. McClanahan & Hallie L. Bissett

The Seventymile Kid: The Lost Legacy of Harry Karstens and the First Ascent of Mount McKinley: Tom Walker

Denali: A Literary Anthology: edited by Bill Sherwonit