Why Obama Changed Mount McKinley’s Name to Denali

President Obama rededicated Mount McKinley as Denali, the mountain's original name.
President Obama rededicated Mount McKinley as Denali, the mountain's original name. Patrick Endres / Getty Images

President Obama is renaming Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America. Now officially called Denali, the peak returns to its the original name from before it was dedicated in 1917 to honor former president William McKinley. The new designation is the President's first step in a new initiative to raise global-warming awareness in the U.S.

President Obama announced the change in his weekly address on Saturday, saying that renaming Denali is a way to bring attention to the vanishing glacier, wild fires, and rising seas that Alaska — the country's last truly wild and remote land — is facing. "This is all real," said Obama. "This is happening to our fellow Americans right now." The renaming is also a historic acknowledgement of the native community, which Obama said is also under threat from global warming. 

Denali is derived from the native Athabascan name and based on a verb theme meaning "high" or "tall," according to linguist James Kari of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. And with a peak standing at 20,237 feet, it's certainly fitting. Denali was briefly called Densmore's Mountain in the late 1800's, after the first European to reach the base of the mountain, a prospector named Frank Densmore. Then, in 1896, a gold prospector named it Mount McKinley to show political support for presidential candidate and soon to be POTUS William McKinley. That name wasn't officially adapted until President Woodrow Wilson signed the Mount McKinley National Park Act in February, 1917.

Obama's rechristening of the mountain's original name comes on the eve of a presidential visit to the state of Alaska. But the president's interior secretary, Sally Jewell, who signed the secretarial order to officially change the name, said that the change is not a rash decision. "I think for people like myself who have known the mountain as Denali for years, and certainly for Alaskans, it's something that's been a long time coming," Jewell said, according to a report from the Alaska Dispatch News.

In fact, nearly annually, Alaska legislators have filed bills to change the name back to Denali, only to be blocked by filed legislation from the Ohio congressional delegation (the home state of William McKinley). This time is different, however, as Jewell has the authority from a 1947 federal law allowing her to make changes to geographic names through the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

Reestablishing the mountain as Denali isn't Obama's only notable move in Alaska. The President reportedly also filmed an episode of Running Wild with Bear Grylls in the Alaskan Wilderness, which will air on NBC later this year.