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McKinley vs. Denali: Who Decides Names on a Map?

National Geographic’s Geographer explains what the change means and why it’s important.

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Alaskans had been pushing the federal government for decades to change Mount McKinley's name to Denali.


What’s in a name?

For the tallest mountain in North America, plenty. On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell signed an order officially changing the name of the 20,310-foot (6,190-meter) peak in Alaska from Mount McKinley to Denali.

“With our own sense of reverence for this place, we are officially renaming the mountain Denali in recognition of the traditions of Alaska Natives and the strong support of the people of Alaska,” Jewell said in a statement.

Denali, the peak's traditional name in the local Koyukon Athabascan language, means "the great one."

The change was cheered in Alaska but denounced by members of Congress from Ohio, the birthplace of William McKinley, the 25th president of the United States. A prospector had first suggested naming the mountain after McKinley in 1896, when the politician was running for president.

We spoke with Juan José Valdés, National Geographic’s geographer, about why the peak has so many names, whether its new one is really permanent, and how mapmakers will handle the change.

Denali actually has 47 official variant names. Is that typical?

Normally there are anywhere from two to ten variant names for a place but Denali has 47, which is quite dramatic. The Dena'ina people in the Susitna River valley used the name Dghelay Ka’a (anglicized as Doleika or Traleika), meaning “big mountain.” Other names include the Russian Bolshaya Gora (for big mountain), various spellings of Athabascan words, North Peak, and Densmore’s Mountain, for a local gold prospector.

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Does the name change require any further approval?

No, the change was already made. Under a 1947 law the Secretary of the Interior has the authority to make name changes happen. So McKinley is now a variant name for Denali.

Some people have said the change could be reversed.

Once the board makes the change it's pretty authoritative, so that’s not likely.

National Geographic is changing its naming of the mountain to Denali, with Mount McKinley in parentheses. How was the decision made?

Up until 1981, National Geographic referred to the mountain as simply Mount McKinley. But after the state of Alaska changed its use of the name to Denali in 1975, and requested the federal government do the same, we changed our policy to write it Mount McKinley (Denali). The first time that appeared in print from us was a supplement in 1981. Our 5th edition atlas reflected that change in 1983. We used Denali as the variant name at that time because it was the most commonly recognized variant form.

We’re using Mount McKinley in parentheses now because it has now become the most commonly recognized variant [Denali (Mt. McKinley)]. Any change like this is going to take some time for people to get accustomed to, so we like to show both. The same thing happened with our India maps when Bombay was renamed Mumbai. We included Bombay as a variant because a lot of people don't immediately make the connection that it’s the new name of the city.

What happens next to maps everywhere? Will old maps be recalled?

Cartographic houses, including National Geographic, will update all maps that carry that name. We are updating our cartographic database, so the change will get reflected right away in any future cartographic products. For maps that are already printed a recall would be too costly...we’ll tackle those products through reprints. The mountain appears on 11 plates in our 10th edition atlas, which came out in September of last year. When we reprint the 10th Edition or create the 11th, we’ll make sure the change is reflected.

How much work is involved in changing a map? Does it affect education?

The change is as simple as editing the name. It can be a problem for people who already have printed maps in their possession. For teachers this could be a teachable moment for students, because it shows how dynamic the world is, not just physically but also that our names for things are constantly evolving.

Does this change set a precedent for other mountains?

Not necessarily. Each mountain has its own story and this name change is a recognition that places were named something else before the arrival of Europeans. It is a recognition that others preceded us. A few years ago Mount Cook in New Zealand was renamed its earlier Maori name, Aoraki, with Mount Cook put in parentheses. 

Denali’s change also calls to mind recent name changes in Ireland.  

In Ireland the naming convention now varies depending on what part of the country you are in. In some parts the Gaelic name is first and the English is a variant, and in other places it's the reverse. A few years ago we revised our maps to reflect what the Irish constitution mandated.

What is the meaning of a place name?

People are often passionate about place names. That’s true for Native peoples as well as nations.

Is there something special about Denali?

Being the highest point in North America, it's a continental superlative, which is one of the things we always emphasize on our maps.

This story was updated at 11:50 a.m. ET Wednesday to reflect the new official height of Denali, as reported by the U.S. Geological Survey.

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