The joke is on us and it's indeed a whopper, the most glaring in-your-face taunt ever hatched in North America.
For thousands of years Denali, meaning ''the tall one,'' was the name locals applied to the mountain towering over Interior Alaska.
Prospector William Dickey was having fun in 1896 when he irreverently dubbed the big peak McKinley, paying tribute to the Ohio politician's support for the gold standard. Dickey's joke, as it happens, received wide circulation thanks to news accounts of his Alaska adventures in the New York Sun.
McKinley's election as president and subsequent shocking assassination prompted geographical authorities who presume to rule on such matters to take their cue from Dickey's popular moniker for the largest mountain in North America. No one in the U.S. map maker's office thought, or much cared what the indigenous residents of the territory might have invested in naming the mountain in their own backyard. One prospector's whimsy thus acquired lasting affect.
Attempts to erase the federal map maker's slight provoke inevitable retaliation from current Ohio politicians. Rep. Ralph Regula, whose district includes Canton, Ohio, has proven to be an obstinate and formidable opponent. With each new session of Congress, Regula introduces a one paragraph bill declaring McKinley as the mountain's name ''notwithstanding any other authority of law.''
The Ohio Republican's arrogant bit of legislative penmanship never receives a hearing. As Regula well knows, his bill's mere introduction is enough to paralyze the U.S. Board of Geologic Names from taking action on Alaska's 26-year-old request to restore the name Denali in place of an old prospector's graffiti on America's map.
Do Alaskans really care? Tanana Chiefs Conference signaled as much last year in a resolution calling for Denali's rightful place on the nation's official maps. Athabascans, the resolution states, ''are entitled to name our own rivers, our own lakes and our own mountains.'' The text expressed frustration with the ''ruthless and contemptuous arrogance'' exhibited by ''newcomers'' who ignored traditional place names.
Members of the Alaska Historical Commission recently agreed to champion the cause anew. Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, a member of the commission, has a letter in the works, restating Alaska's request for a name change to the federal board.
Don't expect quick assistance on this issue from Congress. Regula was recently elected to a 15th term and will no doubt continue his legislative one-upmanship.
Alaska need not play along. We can and should take every opportunity to strip the name McKinley from all maps, contracts, permits, road signs and any other geographic usage under this state's control.
Names occupy a small place in the natural world. Nothing man decides will endure, or speak to future generations with the eloquence of the mountain. Yet, this long-running fight for Denali's proper designation tells the world at large something important about Interior Alaska values.
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