ON THE IDITAROD TRAIL — Dropping down out of the Shell Hills into the snow-covered Skwentna swamps with the countryside awash in the last light of evening, Mount McKinley squatted in massive glory on the eastern horizon, and then the realization crept in that it wasn’t Mount McKinley anymore.
The moment of this recognition might not have been so poignant but for the conversation with Nick Petruska in the kitchen of his Nikolai home the morning before. Petruska is a 74-year-old Athabaskan Indian living in a village of about 100 people struggling to survive along the upper Kuskokwim River in the Interior.
It is not an easy place to live. It has never been an easy place to live. Petruska grew up with parents who were blind, and he pretty much had to teach himself everything about wilderness survival. He went to school for the first time in 1948 to discover that Dinak’i, the only language he spoke, was forbidden, and that if he was going to learn anything, he’d have to learn it in a language — English — of which he didn’t know a word.
There were no dual-language programs in those days. There was old-school immersion.
“I got punished for using the language when I was small,” Nick’s wife, Oline, told University of Alaska Fairbanks historians in an interview recorded a couple years ago.
It was hard to avoid thinking about Nick and Oline when the Big Mountain, Dghelay Ka’a in Dena’ina Athabaskan, loomed into view.
The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same. Ninety-nine years after the mountain I’ve always known as “McKinley” was so named, the powers that be have decided it should have a different name.
For much the reason people long ago decided the Petruska’s shouldn’t speak Dinak’i. McKinley runs counter to the politics of the day. A generation or two back, the well-meaning, English-speaking White invaders in the north decided to “help” the Native inhabitants by teaching them the appropriate language.
Today the advocates of appropriate behavior are going to teach us a new name for McKinley to enlighten us.
But no, it’s not going to be Dghelay Ka’a the name to which the mountain was known by the original residents of Alaska’s now most populous region. Instead, the Big Mountain is getting the name by which it was known to a few hundred, maybe a few thousand, other Athabaskans living the hard life in the Alaska Interior.
I admire those people to no end. I have done my time on the trail at 50 degrees below zero, and readily confess that life in the same environment 200 years earlier might have been too much for me.
I like to think of myself as a tough guy. Over the course of 40 years in Alaska, I’ve been lost, hungry, cold, frostbitten, chewed on by a grizzly bear, flushed down a rapid or two, dug for my life for a hole in the snow to survive a few blizzards, and generally had the crap kicked out of me by the north.
But I’m not sure I could have survived long in a caribou or moose skin tent making fire with a bow/drill and collecting wood with primitive tools. It’s doubtful anyone reading this in the modern age has much idea of the almost inhuman effort required to feed the stove in a coffin-size trapper’s cabin at 50-below using only a descent hand saw, a tool that the the early Athabascan’s lacked.
That is the kind of thing Nick understands.
Sitting around the table with him and Oline and Iditarod Trail Invitational trail boss Bill Merchant, another guy who has put in his time in the north, talking about children being banned from speaking the only language they knew was almost enough to make me cry. Some of that came rippling back farther on down the Iditarod Trail when I cast eyes on what is now called “Denali.”
There really is and was no good reason for re-naming it from McKinley. Everyone alive in Alaska today has known it always by that name. Yes, there are some Native elders who might have heard earlier names, of which there were a variety, and yes, anthropologist Alan Boraas, a Kenai scholar I happen to admire, makes a valid argument that “President Barack Obama’s action to re-institute the Alaska Native name of Denali to North America’s tallest peak is an act of decolonization.“
But the colonization hasn’t ended, and it is isn’t going to end. And one could equally argue that Obama engaged in an act of totalitarianism not unlike that imposed by the U.S. government when it banned Native language in those Alaska schools way back when. There was, lest anyone forget, a compromise agreed to by President Jimmy Carter and the Congress when the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act was passed in 1980.
Mount McKinley National Park was to be renamed Denali National Park and Preserve in honor of the Koyukon Athabaskan name for the mountain and as Boraas’s act of decolonization, and the mountain itself was to remain Mount McKinley in recognition of a president who gave his life for his country.
A lot of Americans, being generally unfamiliar with their history, probably don’t know or have forgotten that McKinley was a sitting president assassinated by an anarchist in 1901. He was a president who after being mortally wounded pleaded for the protection of his assailant.
“…. I rushed to where the assassin lay prostrate on the floor,” journalist John D. Well reported at the time. “A dozen or more men, detectives and guards, were standing over him, striking and kicking him.
“I then hastened back to the side of the President’s chair. He had just raised his eyes, and observed the rough treatment being accorded his would-be assassin. Raising his right hand slightly he said: ‘See that no one hurts him.'”
Sixteen years later, by act of Congress, a national park was named in honor of McKinley and so too the mountain within the park already being called McKinley by many then residents of the Alaska Territory. Now both names are gone. Angry congressmen from McKinley’s home state of Ohio have a right to be angry.
They have now learned what the Miama Indians of Ohio earlier learned. You can’t trust the Great White Father in Washington, D.C. A compromise isn’t a deal in American democracy; it’s just a cease fire for the righteous.
Americans have a sad history of imposing their views on each other in all sorts of ways from oppressive — the usurpation of Native Americans lands, racial discrimination and the criminalization of homosexuality — to just plain stupid.
“Connecticut has a law forbidding any ‘private sexual behavior between consenting adults,'” according to Fox News.
It would all be funny if it was funny, but it’s not. In a country supposedly founded on the idea of tolerance, there is an awful lot of intolerance. There are awful lot of people trying to shove their views of the world down the throats of their neighbors.
I’m not overwhelmingly opposed to Obama changing the name of McKinley, though it is a pretty serious insult to a president killed in office. But if we have to change the name, why not change it to a good, practical, all-inclusive name like that used by the Deni’ana: Big Mountain.
Big Mountain translates nicely into any language you want. It is a name that fits the mountain and a name that even Boraas once seemed to be endorsing. Personally, I wouldn’t have minded breaking into the open north of Skwentna to find Big Mountain lurking on the horizon. I wouldn’t have been left feeling for a moment like the young Petruskas.
I mean really, if we want to do something in the name of decolonization, how about we start with renaming all the Willow (63), Moose (55), Fish (39), Sheep (33) and Alder (28) creeks named by early White explorers and prospectors? Surely the Natives resident in the north when those folks arrived had to have had more descriptive names for some or all of these geographic features.