Indigenous landscapes and languages: Denali vs McKinley

In the aftermath of the political situation in the US, a debate about the name of the highest mountain in North America is taking place. Denali – meaning “the great one” in Athabascan – is the name given to the peak by Native Alaskan and it was recognised as official name by president Barack  Obama in 2015.

The newly elected president Donald Trump has already in his campaign declared that changing the name of the mountain as Obama did, was an insult to Ohio: previously the mountain was officially named Mount McKinley, after the 25th president William McKinley from Ohio. For native Alaskan, giving such a name to the mountain in the first place, instead of its Indigenous name, can also be perceived as an insult.

It is unclear whether Trump’s declaration will result in a name change. But this debate illustrates the ideological and political dimension of naming, and its implications in Indigenous contexts. Re-naming places back to their Indigenous names is part of a decolonization process, as Maori researcher Linda Tuhiwai Smith expresses it. Moreover, the impact and consequences of Indigenous language use in relation to the landscape are also of significance for the vitality and revitalisation of languages.

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