KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Two mountains in the National Park Service have been in the name-changing spotlight. One mountain has set a precedent for the Indigenous place name restoration of the other, although they stand thousands of miles apart.

The highest mountain in North America – Denali – and the highest mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – currently known as Clingmans Dome – have more in common than just being part of NPS. They’re both considered important places by the Indigenous peoples who have traversed their terrains for generations, passing down stories and place names to descendants. Both mountains are major tourist attractions; due to their sizes, both mountains are usually covered in mist and clouds and can be seen on clear days in their respective climates of Alaska and Tennessee/North Carolina.

Currently, the restoration of the Cherokee name, “Kuwohi” to Clingmans Dome is underway with efforts from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The movement has also garnered unanimous support from Buncombe County, N.C. Board of Commissioners.


The EBCI plans to petition the federal government to formally change the name Clingmans Dome to Kuwohi, and it’s a process that has some precedent. In August 2015, the U.S. Department of the Interior, which manages NPS, formally restored the traditional Koyukon Athabascan name of Denali to what was then known as Mount McKinley in Alaska.

A September 2015 post from the U.S. Department of the Interior notes that “when people disagree about the right name of a place, then the importance of geographic names becomes clearly evident.”

Denali National Park’s science and resources team leader Dave Schirokauer was there when the name change at Denali was made official. He said locals had been calling it Denali for decades.

“We had heard that it was in the works, but we didn’t know exactly what day or what’s going to happen. But it was a big deal,” Schirokauer said. “I like to call it an ‘unrenaming.’ Why bother renaming, because it was renamed to McKinley and then it was renamed back to its Athabaskan original name. So then, the Secretary of Interior created this commission for place names and one of our folks here, a young woman on our staff, is also very interested in Alaska Native issues also got named on (the commission) and we’re looking at potentially some other renamings in Denali, but there’s not a ton of force behind it.”

Schirokauer leads the Denali Park science and cultural resources team, whose scientists have been conducting interviews and research for what he called “co-naming” places at Denali National Park so that the original Indigenous place names are also shared with the public. They’ve also spoken with elders from local Alaskan Native tribes so that stories of place names can be remembered.

“Really, the most amazing things that happened over the last few years was trying to get the knowledge keepers of the Alaska Native tradition in a room to get their stories and to get their place names and folks that visit national parks and in some cases, folks that even manage national parks think of these areas as untouched wilderness,” Schirokauer said. “We have in Denali, the second-oldest archaeological site in the state of Alaska, approaching 14,000 years. So we know people that use this landscape for millennia and those people are still here and their descendants, they still live locally. Some of them still use resources in the park.”

Denali. (Photo: National Park Service)

Leading the project is Denali’s cultural anthropologist Amy Carver.

“We’re finishing up the project, and we were very fortunate to be able to work with, there were like four Native speakers, and those people have now passed away. So, I think it’s just a huge tribute to the project, the timing, that we were able to involve them early on, in collecting these place names,” Carver said. “Now we’re getting ready to put them into a book and then also post them on the place names and the narratives on our website.”

The “Mount McKinley National Park” legislation was signed into law on Feb. 26, 1917. For nearly 100 years, the name remained, until former President Barack Obama endorsed the Secretary of the Interior’s decision to issue a Secretarial Order that officially changed the mountain’s name in August 2015 to “Denali” as well as the national park name. The word, “Denali” was amongst the many Indigenous oral place names from time immemorial uttered by no fewer than nine Native groups for the highest mountain, according to NPS. The Athabaskan languages to the south of the mountain use words that mean “mountain-big.” The name “Denali” stems from “deenaalee,” which is from the Koyukon language traditionally spoken on the north side.

The mountain’s former name McKinley had been popularized after the assassination of former President William McKinley in 1901, although he had no formal connections to Alaska.

“Alaska Natives named a lot of things. They knew this landscape really well and had names for all these features. They might be different features and we would think of like then, European colonists would think of mountain peaks in like a really cool shape and giving it a name. I think Native folks thought about using the features to help navigate and so places where there were resources like berries, fish animals, certainly mountains as well, but it was so they could communicate about the land that supported and evolved over thousands and thousands of years. Then calling this team in and just to plop these sort of Eurocentric names on the landscape,” Schirokauer said. “So it’s important to get this information back and really, it’s just the sad story of the elders who are passing away at an alarming rate. These are the knowledge keepers. They hold a ton of knowledge. They’re often shy, they’re maybe a little bit apprehensive about talking to us government officials. Amy’s work has gotten help them become really comfortable or comfortable enough to share a lot with us. And I think there’s the younger Alaskan natives are becoming more interested in their heritage. There’s a little bit of maybe a little research and so some of this is all going to live on in the same way but it will live on in some way.

“I think that the Park Service has a very small role in that but whatever role we can we need to like be aggressive about helping that,” Schirokauer continued. “Maybe in some cases, we have a huge role. But really, it’s all about our service. It’s just where we can land again. We are really obligated to do that. That’s one of the most important stories of the United States apart from services is in the business of telling the world the story about our great country.”

Clingmans Dome (Kuwohi)

A Tennessee cultural and historical geography expert says the restoration of an Indigenous name to a colonized U.S. site is a process that also has a name, coincidentally: Place Name Repatriation.

“What that means is that it is a returning or restoring of an original Indigenous name to a particular place,” Dr. Derek Alderman, a geography professor at the University of Tennessee, said. “And that repatriation of place naming is an important cultural process. In fact, it’s a process that we have seen going on globally: It’s a process of this return to Indigenous names for places happening in Australia, happening in New Zealand, even happening parts of Europe.”

(National Park Service/Kristina Plaas photo)

Alderman, who was recently appointed to the federal Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names by the Secretary of the Interior, shared some insight as to why, he believes, place names are so important in modern society.

“I had one of my students come to me and ask me a little bit about this issue (Clingmans Dome name restoration to “Kuwohi”), ‘why is this important?'” Alderman shared. “I think it’s important for the restoration of that Indigenous name because on one hand, it’s obviously important to the Cherokee and it’s important to the Cherokee being that name – it refers back to their spiritual, historical connection to the mountain. That spiritual-historical connection should be recognized and it should be restored to public recognition. The other reason it’s important is – it’s important to all of us. Place names are very important educationally. We sometimes don’t think of it this way, but place names are part of what we call a hidden curriculum in society, it’s the idea that everything that we learn about society, about history, about its people, isn’t simply just within a history book. It’s not simply within a formal curriculum. We are surrounded every day by symbols that are constantly reminding us of what and who is important. And so changing that place name is a way of generating new discussions about what is the history of that mountain.”

In July, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Council voted to begin the effort to petition the federal government for the name change.

Recently, the EBCI Cherokee Speakers Council voted on the Cherokee name, “Kuwohi” rather than Kuwahi, as previously spelled in the Tribal Council’s first initiative. The Cherokee Speakers Council is comprised of fluent Cherokee language speakers who meet to discuss language and culture.

Next up, the EBCI is submitting its application to begin the process to formally petition the U.S. government for the name repatriation of Clingmans Dome to the Cherokee word, “Kuwohi” which means “the place of mulberries.”

There are many ways to learn more about Native Americans and local tribes in the East Tennessee-North Carolina region. Events are often organized by the EBCI, which is based in the region, as well as at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian – which offers a vivid experience of the 11,000-year-old Cherokee story. The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Vonore, Monroe County, Tenn. is also a way to learn about the Cherokee Syllabary, the written Cherokee language that was invented in 1821.

A timeline for the name change or place name repatriation is currently unknown, but leaders are confident in the proposal. The Tribal Council met again on Sept. 1 but an item related to Kuwohi was not listed on the agenda. Time will tell when or if the proposal goes through.

The Secretary of the Interior is granted the authority to make such changes in certain cases – per the 1947 federal law that provides for the standardization of geographic names through the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. Once a place name is renamed, the official name change is reflected in all federal usage.