Denali denial

Trigger Warning: racism, colonialism, slavery, the Confederacy, genocide

Yesterday, President Obama announced that the US Board of Geographic Names would no longer refer to Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, by that name but rather by the indigenous Athabaskan name, Denali. This is actually a purely federal change that follows the renaming of the south-central Alaskan mountain by the Alaskan Board of Geographic Names, which began officially using the original name in 1980. In fact, Republican Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski praised the change while noting that the mountain had been known as Denali for centuries.

Denali_Mt_McKinleyMount Denali’s highest point is 20,237 feet above sea level and has the largest mass of a single mountain in the world.

Even this largely symbolic reclamation of US land has prompted hostility and racism on the part of many commentators, however. Conservative news sites like Breitbart had their zingers ready, even including “Obama has now solved all the world’s problems, and decided against his second choice [of a name], Mt. Trayvon.” More seriously however, they noted (apparently in disagreement) that “President Obama has obviously attempted to undo many of McKinley’s accomplishments” such as stifling indigenous rule in Hawaii and otherwise expanding the US’s colonial rule and spheres of influence – namely over Cuba. Snopes already has a helpful page up explaining that Denali doesn’t mean “Black Power in Kenyan” (among the inaccuracies there – Kenyan is a nationality, not a language). Iowan Republican Senator Steve King joined the fray as well, seemingly under the impression that the name was somehow constitutionally mandated:

The change has tapped into a clear hotbed of paranoia that White historical figures won’t be remembered (or at least honored with monuments and other named sites). What’s feared instead is that present and historical Black people or indigenous cultural figures and concepts will be. These fears are being expressed in the midst of White people organizing to preserve emblems of and monuments dedicated to the Confederacy. As the New Yorker described one meeting led by Donald Trump supporter and White nationalist Michael Hill:

When Hill took the stage, he told his compatriots that the recent lowering of the Confederate flag was just the beginning. Soon, he warned, adopting the unspecified ‘they,’ they will come for the ‘monuments, battlefields, parks, cemeteries, street names, even the dead themselves.’ The crowd was on its feet, cheering him on. ‘This, my friends, is cultural genocide,’ he said, adding, ‘Often, as history has shown, cultural genocide is merely a prelude to physical genocide.’

Denali was renamed to honor the President of a conquering people – a statement of White power –  and so it’s been imagined that it now being renamed by the first Black President must similarly be a statement of Black power. To even hint at addressing the pain of conquest and enslavement that is American history is interpreted as having to mean redirecting and recreating those pains. Slavery and colonization were genocidal, realizing that’s the case isn’t, but denying that difference is politically necessary for many.

Breitbart posed a question in their coverage of this: “when will President Obama change the name of the American Southwest to Aztlan [sic]?” Much like the belief that Denali means “Black power” in “Kenyan” this reveals not only a colonial ignorance (it’s spelled Aztlán, is a more specific location than the entire Southwest, and has a specific importance in Aztec history) but also a strange paranoia. What is the problem with recognizing the indigenous group’s names for various parts of that land? What does it threaten and why should anyone care? The cord struck struck for many by these name changes show something vulnerable is being exposed.

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