What does it matter to the world if the President of the United States decrees a change to the name of North America’s highest mountain peak? Perhaps it is merely a tempest in a teapot, ultimately signifying nothing of importance. Or perhaps it is far more significant than we may imagine.
For 98 years Americans have referred to the highest mountain on the continent as Mount McKinley. It is not the original name of the mountain. Since time immemorial the Athabaskan people of Alaska have named it Denali, which means Great One in their language. In 1896, a gold prospector in Alaska attached the name McKinley to the mountain, thus declaring support for William McKinley of Ohio, the man who would be elected as the twenty-fifth President of the United States later that year. Since then a controversy has bubbled along regarding the name of the peak, with native Alaskans asserting the original name, and most other Americans who bothered to think about it going along with McKinley. In 1975, the Alaska Legislature officially requested that the United States Government change the name. The name of the national park over which the mountain presides was renamed Denali in 1980, but the mountain itself retained the name of McKinley.
Until now, that is. The administration of President Barrack Obama has announced that the President will use the occasion of his visit to Alaska to bring an end to the dispute and rename the mountain Denali. Alaskans and many others applaud the change, but others have denounced it, particularly the Congressional delegation from McKinley’s home state. Ironically, the entire Alaskan Congressional delegation and most of the Ohio delegation are Republicans, a fact that renders meaningless any charges that this is a political decision by President Obama, a Democrat. Yet it is political, as is everything that a sitting president does. And it is also prophetic.