ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - A century after the first climber reached the summit of North America’s tallest peak, a growing movement of Alaskans is seeking to have it renamed Denali, a moniker meaning “the High One” that is traditionally used by Native Alaskans.
The 20,320-foot (6,194-metre) peak is officially named “Mount McKinley” after the 25th U.S. president, William McKinley, although many mountain climbers and locals refer to it by the name used by the region’s Athabascan people.
“This is the tallest mountain in North America and we deserve to have this Alaskan landmark bear an Alaskan name,” Alaska Republican U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski said in a statement announcing her introduction of a bill in January that would officially designate the mountain as Denali.
Previous efforts to rename the peak, including an earlier attempt by Murkowski, did not succeed.
The McKinley name has been ardently guarded for decades by Ohio politicians, who say it is a fitting tribute to the Ohioan who was president from 1897 until his assassination in 1901.
Former U.S. Representative Ralph Regula, an 18-term Republican whose district included McKinley’s hometown of Canton, was the most prominent defender, often using the appropriations process to block any name changes.
When he retired in 2009, younger Ohioans took up the cause. U.S. Representative Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat, has introduced his own bill to preserve the mountain’s McKinley name.
“We must retain this national landmark’s name in order to honor the legacy of this great American president and patriot,” Ryan said in a statement.
The official U.S. government name was bestowed at the urging of a gold prospector to celebrate the 1896 presidential nomination of McKinley, a Republican champion of the gold standard and political foe of Democrat William Jennings Bryan, a silver-standard champion.
Name-change advocates are hoping the 100th anniversary of the first summit expedition will give their campaign momentum.
Murkowski’s bill is co-sponsored by Alaska’s other senator, Democrat Mark Begich, and has the support of Senator Mark Udall of Colorado. Udall, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee on public lands, has climbed the Alaska mountain.
“I think the idea of designating `Denali’ keeps faith with the Native people,” Udall told a Senate hearing on Wednesday.
The Alaska-Ohio name debate began in earnest in 1975. That year, the state of Alaska officially designated the mountain name as “Denali” and urged Congress to do the same.
A compromise of sorts was struck in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which established more than 100 million acres (40 million hectares) of new parks, wildlife refuges and other protected land units in Alaska. That act tripled the size of the old Mount McKinley National Park, creating today’s 6 million-acre (2.4 million-hectare) Denali National Park and Preserve.
McKinley name supporters counter that before 1896, the mountain had several names bestowed in different Alaska Native languages and in Russian, including “Dghelay Ka’a” and “Bol’shaya Gora.” They translated to “big mountain,” “the big one,” “the high one” or “great mountain,” according to the Alaska Dictionary of Place Names.
For now, the U.S. Department of the Interior has staked a neutral stance in the name debate.
“The department does not object to this bill and appreciates the long history and public interest for both the name ‘Mount McKinley’ and the traditional Athabascan name ‘Denali,’” Peggy O’Dell, deputy director of the National Park Service, said at Wednesday’s hearing.
In 1913, Walter Harper, a 21-year-old Athabascan, was the first member of a four-man climbing party to reach the top.
This summer, Harper’s great-grandnephew and descendants of other members of the 1913 summit team will mount an expedition to follow their ancestors’ path. The trek is scheduled to start on June 7, 100 years after Harper reached the summit.
It is significant that three of the six people in that first successful expedition were Alaska Natives, said Dana Wright, Harper’s 27-year-old great-grand-nephew. Aside from Harper, the other two maintained a base camp and delivered supplies by sled-dog team, he said.
Wright, a back-country snow boarder from Anchorage, said he would prefer the mountain be named “Denali,” which he said was what the original summit team called it.
“I would like the name changed back. I think it’s a much more majestic name than Mount McKinley,” he said.
Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney