Renaming of Mt. McKinley holds significance for native people

Tatiana Parafiniuk-Talesnick

Attached, detached and reattached again — for centuries, Native American people have had a rocky relationship with the Americanization of their homeland.

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The CSU Native American Cultural Center Director Ty Smith and Assistant Director Tiffani Kelly pose together. (Photo credit: Cisco Mora)

President Barack Obama made a trip to Alaska Aug. 28 to restore the name of North America’s highest point from Mt. McKinley to Denali, its original Native American name.

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Denali is Koyukon for “the high one,” but the return to its original name is not just about a name. 

“Going back to the original name of Denali, for the people who live there, is really a way of reattaching people to that mountain,” said Ty Smith, the director of the Native American Culture Center at Colorado State University. “Names that are given to mountains or locations, some people just view that as a name, but some of those names are part of our creation stories, a part of who we are, a part of our traditions, so it really creates that sense of attachment from people to the land.”

Renaming, or returning original names, has sparked a national debate. Although praised by indigenous Alaskans as a move of decolonization, many politicians are fighting the renaming. House Speaker John Boehner, presidential candidate Donald Trump and many other Republicans do not agree with the move, claiming the name Mt. McKinley to be important as a way of recognizing history. 

“It’s important to recognize that there is an indigenous history behind different sites,” said Danita Ordaz, a senior ethnic studies student. “I am glad that this is a new trend, but it needs to continue, and I feel we still have a long way to go.”

Mt. McKinley was officially named in 1917, out of respect for the 25th American president, William McKinley, following his assassination. Prior to this, the mountain had been called Denali by indigenous people. 

“It’s cultural, it’s spiritual, it’s deeply embedded in many of these tribes, that one in particular, but I think too when you talk about the mountain campus, that names mean a lot more than just a name,” said Tiffani Kelly, NACC assistant director.

Renaming sites out of respect and historical recognition is familiar to CSU. Last year, CSU’s Mountain Campus was given its official name to separate itself from the history associated with its unofficial name, Pingree Park. George Pingree lived in the area now know as Pingree Park for a short time, but he is more infamously known for his role in the Sand Creek Massacre of Native Americans in 1864.

“Giving that name and understanding who it was named after can be very damaging, especially for our native youth as we go up there to enjoy that campus,” Smith said.

Following the much-needed renaming, students participated in an NACC program that held a celebration on the Mountain Campus. They invited elders and Mountain Campus staff, and took a moment to talk about the impact a name can have.

Kelly described the moment as powerful and lingering.

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When the president visited Alaska to rename the mountain, he was greeted with songs from local tribespeople to recognize the importance of the change. 

“With regards to Denali and the CSU Mountain Campus, I believe it is important to understand the histories behind the name changes and uphold to positive association with the areas,” said junior wildlife biology student Miranda Kurtz.

Collegian Reporter Tatiana Parafiniuk-Talesnick can be reached at news@collegian.com.