Point of View Columns

What’s in a Name? Everything.

For those Americans who believe that America has changed from its historical origins – origins that have included racially-based slavery, genocide and theft – recent news must have come as something of a disappointment. When President Obama announced that Mt. McKinley in Alaska would be renamed with its original, indigenous name, Mt. Denali, the hue and cry of opposition was at its birther worst.

First some history – the Iñupiat, Yupik, Aleut, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian have lived in the area that is known as Alaska for thousands of year. At some point the largest mountain in the northern hemisphere was named “Denali”, a word meaning “tall” in the Koyukon language. And then came the Europeans.

Then came the Russians who in their infinite wisdom and ignorance of the indigenous people named the mountain Bolshaya Gora, the Russian translation of Denali or “tall”. And then came the Americans, no stranger to ignoring indigenous people. An American gold prospector decided to name Mount Denali Mount McKinley, since he supported a presidential candidate named William McKinley. Keep in mind that the naming of Mount McKinley would be akin to naming some geographical phenomenon “Mount Santorum” or “Mount Bernie Sanders” – presidential candidates, not even a president.

But there is more, of course. The opponents of the righteous and rightful renaming of Mount Denali are the cultural and spiritual descendants of the Europeans who came to the Western Hemisphere and destroyed the culture and civilization of the people who had lived on these lands for thousands of years.

We hear the wails and moans of the archeologists after the destruction of undeniably historic sites by ISIS in Palmyra, Syria. The question is asked, what kind of people who engage in such wanton destruction of civilization?

The answer would be the same kind of people who destroyed all significant aspects of the Aztec civilization in Tenochtitlan, now known as Mexico City. The answer would be the same kind of people who destroyed the civilizations of the Cherokee, the Apache, the Iroquois, the Sioux and so many more peoples whose memories have either been obliterated or relegated to being sports mascots and caricatures.

The mindset of those who would oppose the renaming of Mount Denali is the same mindset which has proudly and loudly proclaimed the predominance of white western civilization over all other civilizations. There is no way to justify the creation of the United States on the bones and bodies and civilizations of indigenous peoples. And while the clock cannot be turned back, there is no reason why this country should go forward with such a backward point of view.

One can only hope that after the tide of white ethnic indignation recedes that rational thought and fairness will make themselves known in the national discourse. It does no dishonor to William McKinley or the American presidency to restore the name of Mount Denali. Indeed, the renaming of Mount Denali is an honorable act and we can hope that it precedes other honorable acts of moral reparations – such as finally dispensing with the ethnic slur that is the name of the Washington NFL team along with the names of the Cleveland and Atlanta major league baseball teams along with the numerous college “mascots” that still demean the descendants of the indigenous people of this land.

It is time to say enough. It is enough that the founders and builders of this country killed the indigenous people. It is enough that they destroyed their civilizations and ways of life. Put simply, it is not too much to ask that the desecration and mockery of their culture stop.



One thought on “What’s in a Name? Everything.

  1. Eugene Pursoo says:

    Dear Wallace, I commend you on a very thoughtful and well-written piece on this aspect of racism. I observed that you wrote “One can only hope that after the tide of white ethnic indignation recedes that rational thought and fairness will make themselves known in the national debate”. That is unnecessary! the history which you so eloquently quoted produces clear indication that the hope of “white indignation” receding is a hopeless hope. In fact, it is irrelevant. I am delighted that on this occasion, President Obama did not wait for a change in the political climate to take the courageous action and rename Mt. McKinley to the rightful name Mt. Denali.

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