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The story of America is told by the names on the land. When you hear names like Kentucky and Kennesaw, Klamath and Kodiak, your mind immediately starts to turn over all manner of associated thoughts of what you may have experienced or learned or even what you may imagine about that place. Geographic names often serve as a mental index and guide to help organize our knowledge of American geography and history.

Denali-MtMcKinley
I will never forget the first time I saw Denali. Even from Anchorage, over 100 miles away, I could see a massive mound of white on the horizon, so obviously taller than anything else around it. I stood and marveled; it truly is ‘the high one.’ -Doug Vandegraft, Chair, Domestic Names Committee, U.S. Board on Geographic Names; resident of Anchorage, 1983-2000. Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

Most of the time the names of places seem quite mundane because they are so basic in our everyday lives. They are invisible, unremarkable elements of the way we think and communicate. Yet, to borrow a phrase from Sir Francis Bacon*, names carry “much impression and enchantment.” When people disagree about the right name of a place, then the importance of geographic names becomes clearly evident.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell has announced that the highest mountain in the United States and North America, formerly known as Mount McKinley, will now be officially designated by the name Denali in all federal records.

“This name change recognizes the sacred status of Denali to many Alaska Natives,” Secretary Jewell said. “The name Denali has been official for use by the State of Alaska since 1975, but even more importantly, the mountain has been known as Denali for generations. With our own sense of reverence for this place, we are officially renaming the mountain Denali in recognition of the traditions of Alaska Natives and the strong support of the people of Alaska.”

Secretary Jewell issued a Secretarial Order to make the name Denali official in accordance with her authority under the 1947 federal law that provides for the standardization of geographic names through the U.S Board on Geographic Names. Her action was heartily endorsed by President Obama who was participating in a meeting of the international Arctic Council in Anchorage.

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