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MIKE KEELER: So There Was This Guy From New Hampshire . . .

He moved to Seattle. Then, during the Yukon Gold Rush, he went north in search of riches. In 1897, his exploits were featured in an article in the New York Sun that included his comment that he had named a prominent mountain “Mt. McKinley,” because in the upcoming presidential election the Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan was in favor of a silver standard, but the Republican nominee William McKinley – the Governor of Ohio – favored gold. When McKinley was elected the 25th president, the name stuck. And that’s how the highest peak in North America was named by a man from New Hampshire for a man from Ohio, who had nothing to do with said mountain, never saw it, and had no apparent interest in it whatsoever.

Most folks in Alaska have always disliked the name, and commonly refer to the mountain by the name used for thousands of years by the native Koyukon Athabascan people, “Denali,” which means, “The High One.” Not long ago, President Obama, supported by Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, officially changed the name back to Denali. Proponents of the change cheered that it signaled respect for native traditions in America; opponents snidely remarked that Obama’s nickname from his partying days in college was probably, “the high one,” and so this arrogant president was actually renaming Mt. McKinley in honor of himself.

But I digress. The renaming of McKinley raises a larger geo-historo-etymo-logical question: are there any other mountains out there that might benefit from a retro-indigeno-name-o?

How about the mountain upon which the successor to President McKinley was sitting when he learned that McKinley had been assassinated? Yep, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was on the shoulder of New York’s highest peak when a runner arrived to inform him he was the new president! Now I ask you, should that seminal American story refer to that mountain as merely “Mt. Marcy” (named for the Governor of New York), or the much more evocative native name, “Tahawus,” which means “Cloud Splitter.” Think of the possibilities: Teddy atop Tahawus, the Big Stick on Cloud Splitter. Bully!

How many of you crunchy Californians have climbed Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental US, which is named for a geologist? Wouldn’t it be groovier to ascend “Tumanguya,” which means “Very Old Man” in Paiute? Gnarly!

When you visit the Rocky Mountains, do you want to climb “Pike’s Peak,” (named for an explorer with the ridiculous first name Zebulon who never made it to the summit) when instead you can say you climbed “Tava” (“Sun Mountain” in native Ute), or even better, “”Heey-otoyoo” (“Long Mountain” in Arapaho)? Far out!

And finally, let’s go back to where we started, New Hampshire, and to Mount Washington, the highest peak in the White Mountains. It was once thought to be the highest peak in the East. But it has since been proven to be shorter than its counterpart, Mt. Mitchell, in the Black Mountains of North Carolina.

Oh come now! The father of our country memorialized by a mountain shorter than one named in honor of a professor from UNC? Sorry, that’s an insult.

It’s time to take “Washington” off that mountain and honor it with a better name. A native name that means, “Home of the Great Spirit.” That would be wicked.

And you could have a bumper sticker that says, “This car climbed Mt. Agiocochook.”

Mike Keeler

– Mike Keeler

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