Beyond Denali: Restoring Native American names

Story highlights

  • Denali had been the tallest U.S. peak's name for millennia
  • Many U.S. sites, including the Chattahoochee River in Georgia, have Native American names
  • The Lakota Nation in Wyoming has petitioned the federal government to change the name of Devils Tower

(CNN)There's power in naming.

In some cases, streets, cities, natural wonders and even countries are renamed by the winning side of a battle or war.
    Often times, it's the surveyors coming after the battles that have been fought, mapping "unexplored" regions and making these places their namesake or giving the honor to politicians in power just because they can.
    Which explains why Denali, the Alaskan mountain that is the tallest U.S. peak, had been called McKinley since 1896, before William McKinley even won his Republican bid for president. That is, until U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell restored the mountain to Denali, an Athabascan (Native Alaskan) name for "great one" on August 30.
    Denali and other natural wonders that have stood on the North American continent for millennia were named for European explorers, American presidents and others, even though they had been named by Native American nations thousands of years earlier.
    Sometimes colonists or U.S. citizens renaming these natural wonders chose to respect enshrined Native American names. Maine's Mount Katahdin, the northernmost point of the Appalachian Trail, was named the "Greatest Mountain" by the Penobscot Indians and retains that name.
    The Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in Georgia retains the Native American word "Chattahoochee," which the National Park Service says is "thought to mean 'River of Painted Rocks.' "
    Several state names are Native American in origin. The names of Massachusetts and Minnesota come from the language of the Massachusetts-area Algonquian Indians and the Dakota Sioux name for sky-tinted water, respectively.
    But many natural wonders still retain names chosen by people who came after the Native Americans. And there's a loss of history when those traditional names are replaced, according to some experts.
    "For traditional societies, place names were typically associated with histories and stories and mnemonic devices to aid those societies to find knowledge about anything, such as our environment or who we are as a society," said Jay Johnson, a University of Kansas associate professor of geography, whose research focuses on indigenous peoples' cultural survival.
    When other people come in and change the names, "there's certain loss of knowledge," said Johnson. "The restoration of traditional place names is an acknowledgment of traditional society, an acknowledgment of their knowledge of the landscape and their history."
    Some Native Americans connected to land refuse to give up the fight to restore those names or find other Native names that fit, and they are increasingly joined by non-Native allies.
    They often petition their state board on geographic names and the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, a federal interagency board that standardizes geographic names. The board has not been directed to restore Native American names of places, although the board's Domestic Names Committee does consult with tribes on name proposals.
    "It's not the board's mission to restore historical names," says Louis Yost, the federal board's executive secretary and a staffer at the U.S. Geological Survey. "It tends to go along with local use and preference. In (the) case of Denali, that's how everyone up there, the locals, Native or not, refer to the local features."
    That was the case for Alaska's Black River, which Yost said was restored in 2014 to its Gwich'in name, Draanjik River. The reinstated name translates to "caches along the river."
    Another is Hawadax Island, part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which had previously been named Rat Island. The island had been overrun by rats hundreds of years ago and its ecology destroyed after a Japanese vessel shipwrecked there.
    The Nature Conservancy worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Island Conservation to remove the rats and restore the island's ecology to make it habitable for birds again, said Rand Hagenstein, the Nature Conservancy's Alaska director. The group's Native Aleut partners helped restore the name, which the U.S. Board of Geographic Names made official in 2012.
    The English name given to the island reminds people of what Hagenstein calls the ecological insult. Restoring the island's ecology and giving it a native name got rid of "the ecological insult and name insult and put back appropriate names from first peoples of Alaska," he said.
    More change may be on the way.
    A spiritual leader from the Lakota Nation in Wyoming has petitioned the federal government to change the name of Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming to Bear Lodge National Monument. "Bear Lodge" is the English translation of an early name for the site, which researchers speculate was misinterpreted as "Bad Gods," followed by "Devils Tower."
    However, there's division among locals about the need to rename the monument. Local and state politicians have said it would be expensive to rename a popular tourist destination and that the proposed name would cause confusion with other spots named "Bear Lodge."
    A proposal to rename South Dakota's Harney Peak with "Hinhan Kaga (Making of Owls)" failed at the state level. The South Dakota Board on Geographic Names voted to retain the name "Harney Peak," citing a lack of consensus within the state on a replacement name.
    Another proposal to change "Harney Peak" to "Black Elk Peak" is still before the national board. But it may not succeed in the face of opposition by the state board.
    While there's lots of debate over renaming Mount Rainier in Washington state, the U.S. board has already rejected that idea, so it's not likely to come up again soon.
    There's not much debate within Alaska over Denali.
    In Alaska, non-Native Alaskans and Native Alaskans alike call the great mountain "Denali." The national park was named "Denali National Park and Reserve" in 1980, but even Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski couldn't get legislation passed in Congress to change the mountain's name back to Denali. (Ohio's congressional delegation, McKinley's home state, opposed the move.)
    "The name McKinley was a name bestowed on the mountain honoring someone who had never been here," said Hagenstein. "Sure, he was a fine leader but he had no connection with Alaska."
    "Denali is the great one, and it's an impressive and imposing part of our landscape," he said. "It means a lot to have the original name associated with it. Anything we can do to maintain and deepen our connection to land is a good thing."
    And whether people live in Alaska or Outside (as Alaskans put it, with a capital "O"), people benefit from a sense of time that stretches back before the first European explorers, Johnson said.
    "For all Americans, it helps us to know our longer history," said Johnson. "While some people argue that McKinley has been the name for more than 100 years, Denali is a name that's been there for thousands of years. Isn't that longer history important to know for us to know as Americans?"