Who Named Denali?
This photo by gmg_zero3 is used under a Creative Commons license
To visit Denali National Park is to observe nature at its awe-inspiring best. Mt. McKinley dominates the sky at 20,320 above sea level, dwarfing the surrounding peaks and stunned onlookers. Of course, McKinley can be a bit elusive and it’s not always possible to catch a glimpse of its summit as the overhanging clouds often block the view. But if you’re lucky enough to get there on a clear day, you’ll never forget the incredible view that unfolds before you.
Seeing the mountain and surrounding lands makes us wonder; Who lived here before the Russian and American settlers? Who called this land home?
The Naming Dispute
Denali, a Tanana Athabaskan word meaning “The High One,” was the original native name for the mountain long before Western settlers arrived in the area. In 1897, when Alaska was still just a territory, the mountain was legally renamed to Mount McKinley after William McKinley, who was running for president. Although the mountain’s name might have been legally changed, locals and mountaineers have never stopped calling it Denali, even to this day.
Denali’s Original Inhabitants
This photo by Wikimedia Commons is used under a Creative Commons license
In calling the mountain Denali, local Alaskans are paying respect to a tradition that dates back thousands of years. The Tanana tribe and their ancestors have called this land home since just after the last Ice Age. Their people were part of a larger population of tribes who lived and traveled in current-day Alaska and the Yukon.
Each tribe in and around current-day Alaska spoke a distinct dialect. The Alaska interior was inhabited by peoples who spoke various forms of Athabaskan, with the Tanana in the center. This tribe is believed to be the first inhabitants of the Tanana River and surrounding areas. As the people evolved over thousands of years, their separate dialects became divergent languages, as loosely related as their bloodlines.
Life in the Tanana
The Tanana tribe was semi-nomadic, moving with the turning of each season to follow the plants and animals that would provide fresh food for the next three months. Villages were typically set up nearby rivers that held fish, and berries were foraged during the summer. The people hunted everything from bear and caribou to beaver and marmots, using the game for both meat and skins.
Caribou were by far the most prized game in the tribe, as the animals were used for not only food, but the skins could be made into clothing, shelters, boats, and the sinews were dried and made into netting for snowshoes, rope for traps, and other essentials. The caribou were so essential for Tanana survival that hunting it gave a great social advantage within the tribe.
When a hunter had more meat than his family could eat, he held a potlatch for the tribe, sharing his wealth with his community. Potlatches were great feasts that were usually held in the tribal chief’s shelter. They sometimes lasted as long as an entire week, and were held within the tribe or between two tribes to help build friendly ties between them, arrange marriages or trade agreements.
Potlatches were traditionally held in the middle of winter, when food and resources were scarce. Hosting a potlatch was considered an act of social stature, to show off wealth, good luck, and prosperity. They were also held in celebration of a marriage or in mourning after the death of a tribesman. The funeral potlatches were the largest, and were held as the final public display of mourning for the deceased, generally happening one year after the person has died.
For the Tanana, their ability to live in tune with nature meant the difference between life and death, so it’s of little surprise that their spiritual ideology centered around Animism, the belief that non-human entities possess a spiritual essence. They believed that everything in nature had its own spirit and must be treated respectfully.
A central figure in each tribe was the shaman, or the medicine man or woman. These shamans were believed to be the communicator between the human and spiritual worlds. They were also the keepers of traditions and taboos that were meant to appease the spirit world. For instance, if a man killed a wolf, he could not touch the body until he formally apologized to the animal and explained why his family needed the hunt.
Respect for Nature
The Tanana conviction that everything in nature must be respected was integrated into their way of life. The tribe avoided waste of any kind by using every last part of animals they killed or plants they harvested, they cared for the earth, and they hunted only what they needed. It’s no wonder Denali National Park was named after the Tanana word for the great mountain.
Today, we still honor their traditions of conservation and respect for nature here in Alaska. When you come visit our beautiful park, you may be lucky enough to see some of the animals the Tanana relied on for their livelihood. When you visit, try imagining the land you travel through as it once was, the home of the Alaska Native people and picture their shelters along the rivers. The people of Alaska were proud to name the park in honor of the brave and resilient Tanana people.
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