On Monday, September 1, during a trip to Alaska, President Obama announced that the highest peak in North America would be officially restored to the Koyukon Athabascan name of Denali which means “the tall one.” This is the name the Athabascan people have used for the mountain for centuries. In 1896, a prospector emerged from exploring the mountains of central Alaska and received news that William McKinley had been nominated as a candidate for President of the United States. In a show of support, the prospector declared the tallest peak of the Alaska Range as “Mt. McKinley”—and the name stuck.
McKinley became our 25th President, and was tragically assassinated just six months into his second term. But he never set foot in Alaska—and for centuries, the mountain that rises some 20,000 feet above sea level, had been known by another name—Denali. Generally believed to be central to the Athabascan creation story, Denali is a site of significant cultural importance to many Alaska Natives. (White House Fact Sheet)
Many articles have been written about the significance restoring the name Denali has had for the Athabascan people. But in this piece I would like to acknowledge that this name change has been a passionate issue for the natives of Alaska for a long time and therefore reflect on the significance their efforts have had for the rest of the country.
Those were the words of a Native elder when asked for his thoughts regarding the millions of European immigrants who had flooded Turtle Island to establish a new nation.
"Eventually, after they have used up all the resources and the land is no longer profitable for them, they'll leave. They'll move on to someplace different. And then we, the indigenous people, will nurse our land back to health."
That is an incredible perspective from a very observant man who has seen the lands of his ancestors senselessly exploited by generations of foreigners.
I have long said that the United States of America is a nation that desperately needs to be adopted. It is a country of over 300 million undocumented immigrants. People from all over the world who have left their lands, their homes and their families, everything they knew and loved. And they have flocked to this "new world" largely in pursuit of a financial dream of prosperity. But they never asked for, nor have they been given permission to be here. They have no clue why the mountains lie where they lie, or why the rivers flow where they flow. And as a result they feel lost, and live here like one lives in a hotel room.
But for the indigenous peoples of this continent, our creation stories take place in this land. They tell us why that mountain sets where it does, and why those rivers flow where they do. These stories connect us to this land. They ground us. And they motivate us to live here sustainably.
Our uninvited guests desperately want to feel connected to this land as well, but they have no stories, no understanding. So instead they carve their faces into sacred landmarks, and they name mountains that are eons old, after mere men who have never even seen them.
My Athabascan relatives in Alaska have given the United States of America an incredible gift. They have fought to share the name of their sacred mountain, and are giving this nation of immigrants permission to use it. This is an amazing gesture of both hospitality and mercy. And it is possibly a sign of hope. Hope that instead of waiting for their uninvited guests to leave, they might instead be willing to welcome them in, share their stories with them, and train them how to live well within this land.
- Mark Charles (Navajo)
*An edited version of this article was originally written for, and published by Sojourners.