This 20,000-foot mountain is a well-known landmark and dominant feature of the Alaska Range.
Denali, the highest point on the North American continent, is a popular destination for tourists and the inspiration for naming the nearby Denali National Park and Preserve. Athabascan anthropologist Karen Evanoff, a friend and colleague, in response to this official name change, wrote to me:
The original names of places by indigenous people were given for many reasons and speaks to the deep relationship with the environment. To know, use and understand the meaning of the names is an honor to the land and acknowledges the vital importance of these roots in today's vastly changing world.
Changes to place names have been a routine part of a larger agenda to erase indigenous languages and cultures by colonial powers. While we may not see decades-old debates of this sort in the national and international media every day, there are many places throughout the world where indigenous place names are being reestablished. Addressing "colonial naming" in New Zealand, for example, a recent amendment states that "any future naming or name alterations would give preference to original Māori names."
Throughout Canada, First Nations communities have moved to reestablish their place names. Ingrid Kritsch, research director of the Gwich'in Social and Cultural Institute, says, "traditional place names can point not only to significant physical sites for Aboriginal peoples, but can also embody important intangible cultural values."
Gwich'in communities have recently celebrated the restoration of 414 of their traditional place names, which are now officially recognized by the government of the Northwest Territories.
This official recognition of Denali's true name is a sign of deep respect for Alaska's indigenous peoples. This cannot undo the past and erase the destruction brought about by colonization. However, it can set a new way of thinking about place names, the people who inhabit those places and the important relationships they continue to maintain with the land.