After decades of failed attempts, Alaskan lawmakers succeeded in their efforts to take North America’s tallest mountain back to its native roots: Mount McKinley will now be Denali again, like it was before 1917.
Alaska’s effort was unique: a nonstop push for change that began as far back as 1975. The question in this case is less about why the U.S. renamed it (President William McKinley had no ties whatsoever to the mountain, making the name more than a bit suspect) and more about why it took so long. It would have happened decades ago had congressional representatives from Ohio (McKinley’s birthplace) not continuously blocked their efforts.
Yet most significant American locations and landmarks with European identifiers have an older name given by whichever tribe was there first. Which is to say, there’s not much here that the U.S. government has not, at some point, renamed.
There are other prominent examples. Mountains seem to inspire the rebranding spirit—something about the natural beauty, surely. For example, Mount St. Helens, which is known to the Klickitat people of the Pacific Northwest as Louwala-Clough, meaning “smoking mountain.” Mount Rushmore’s original Sioux name translates to “six grandfathers,” which means at best we’re two busts short of its given name. Rushmore was given its English name in 1885, St. Helens in 1792.
The Grand Canyon is so big that multiple tribes have multiple names for it, but most get at the same thing as the English moniker it was given in 1871. Before that, it was referred to as just “Big Canyon.”
Still other place names are adapted from their original residents. Cities are a good example. Of America’s five largest cities, four have names that colonists derived from their Native American forebears: New York (Manhattan), Chicago, and Philadelphia all have Native American names; Los Angeles was taken by the Spanish from two tribes and renamed as well. Only Houston, which was named for a general of the Republic of Texas, doesn’t reflect native DNA in its name. The space was used by local tribes for hunting, though.
Everywhere from Yellowstone to Disney World was at one time populated by Native American tribes, so in theory every locale in the U.S. has something to revert to. Tuba City, Arizona, has nothing to do with the instrument. It was an Europeanized pronunciation of the name of a Hopi leader that the Mormons got wrong in the 1870s. It has another name.
But compared to Mount McKinley, there isn’t really movement to return any of these places to their native roots—at least not one supported by government officials so aggressively.
More attention is paid to the out-and-out offensive names. Arizona successfully renamed Squaw Peak in Phoenix in 2003, instead honoring a Native American soldier killed in Iraq. Six locations in Maine were renamed to remove the prefix “Squa” in 2011, as was Squaw Island near Buffalo this year. A New Mexico park was renamed last year to eliminate a namesake that was cruel to Native Americans in 2014.
That’s the most common occurrence of change: eliminating offensive words from maps. And while there remain plenty of offenders out there in other parts of American life—including one NFL team that needs no introduction—that continue unpersuaded with some truly inappropriate names, there’s room for more attention on the cartography side. There’s still Squaw Valley, the California resort town that hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics.
But getting rid of derogatory terms is a different (and arguably more pressing) issue than returning authentic names to Native American cultural locales. If we’ve managed to get McKinley changed, it’s almost like we should be past these other hurdles already.
In other words, we’ve still got a long way before Yellowstone, Mount St. Helens, and the other wonders of nature in the U.S. get a chance at a rebranding. But it’s nice to know that if you put a name change up for consideration, it might only take 40 years to get it passed.