Thursday, December 10, 2015

Denali, Ongtupqa, and Other Native American Names for Landmarks

Mount McKinley was recently renamed Denali, but it's not the only one with a Native American name

Since 1917, the tallest mountain in North America has been known as “Mount McKinley” on official maps and registers. But on August 28, the Department of the Interior declared that the 20,237-foot peak would once again be officially known as “Denali,” the name it held for thousands of years.

“This name change recognizes the sacred status of Denali to many Alaska Natives,” Secretary Jewell said in a statement. “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.”

Meaning “the great one” or “the high one,” Denali plays a central role in the creation myth of the Koyukon Athabascans, a Native Alaskan group that has lived in the region for centuries, Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes for The New York Times. The mountain first became known as Mount McKinley in 1896, when a gold prospector emerged from the wilderness to learn that William McKinley, a defender of the gold standard, had just been nominated as a presidential candidate. While McKinley was assassinated just six months into his first term and never set foot in Alaska, the name stuck.

Denali is one of the most high-profile cases of official mapmakers disregarding the names given to natural landmarks by Native Americans but it is far from the only one. Here are a few of the United States’ natural wonders that had names for centuries before Europeans set foot in the Americas:

The Grand Canyon

The second-most visited national park in the country and one of the United States’ most iconic natural landmarks, the Grand Canyon has been continuously inhabited by Native American groups for almost 12,000 years, according to the National Parks Service. The canyon was called "Ongtupqa" in the Hopi language and was considered a holy site and a passageway to the afterlife.

Mount Rushmore

The cliffside that bears the likenesses of George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln changed several times during the 19th century. The Black Hills of South Dakota, where the presidential carvings loom, was originally Sioux holy land, with the mountain itself known as “The Six Grandfathers,” Nick Kirkpatrick writes for The Washington Post. While the land was promised to the Sioux by an 1868 treaty, it was taken back by the federal government in 1877. The mountain was officially named “Mount Rushmore” in 1930 after a New York lawyer who liked to hunt in the area.

The Everglades

Once covering over 11,000 square miles of Florida’s marshland, the Everglades were home for several Native American groups, including the Calusa, Seminole and Miccosukee tribes for more than 3,000 years. Originally called Pa-hay-Okee, meaning “grassy river” in the Seminole language, the marshes were dubbed “the Everglades” by the first Englishmen to visit the region, according to the National Parks Service.

Mount Washington

The tallest mountain in the northeast, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington was once called Agiocochook, or "Home of the Great Spirit," by the local Abenaki people. The mountain was first referred to as Mount Washington in 1784 in honor of the then-general’s military service, but was officially named by the group of mountaineers who designated New Hampshire’s Presidential Range in 1820, according to the Appalachian Mountain Club.

Lewis, Danny. 2015. “Denali, Ongtupqa, and Other Native American Names for Landmarks”. Smithsonian. Posted: September 1, 2015. Available online:

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