I’ve never been to Alaska. I don’t suppose I shall ever do so. However, one part of it has always seemed a bit special to me, and that is Mount McKinley. This is for two simple reasons – the first book I ever read to myself was a book on mountaineers, with stirring if simply written tales of Whymper, Mallory, Irvine, Tenzing and Hilary. Mount McKinley was among the mountains covered, though I cannot remember who the mountaineer was. The second, leading on from the first, was a triumph at school when I won some geography quiz by knowing the name of North America’s highest mountain, much to the befuddlement of the geography teacher. A petty memory, but we must treasure what we have.
Now Mount McKinley is in the news, because President Obama has listened to the pleadings from native Alaskans to have the mountain renamed Denali, its original name, rather than being named after an American president who never visited Alaska and whose only connection with the place was a political interest in the gold standard, which tied him in some way to the Klondike gold rush.
This is great news, because names are powerful things. The question is, will things stop here? If we are keen to see the names of mountains returned to their rightful native nomenclature, then what about Mount Everest? Why is a mountain that straddles Nepal and Tibet named after a British geographical surveyor? It’s colonial arrogance of the grossest kind.
The problem will be that Mount Everest is known as Sagarmāthā in Nepal, and in Tibet as Chomolungma. In Alaska, the different native peoples agreed on a name that all accepted (and had been the official Alaskan state name since 1975), whereas one suspects that local passions would make the universally accepted renaming of Everest more of a challenge. Of course, the mountain is already accepted under those names by those respective local administrations – it’s just the rest of the world that sticks with the manly-sounding virtues of Everest. But if Peking could become Beijing, Bombay become Mumbai, Rhodesia become Zimbabwe, Ceylon become Sri Lanka, and Ayers Rock become Uluru, then it would not beyond the world’s collective imagination to accept Everest as Chomolungma (or Sagarmāthā). And then K2 as Chhogori. All the other great Himalayan peaks have local names, or most of them, so why these exceptions?
Names are powerful things. They confer power, cement ownership, affirm identity. And they are changeable, because ownership is never permanent. There is a touch of sentimentality about conferring ‘original’ names on places or cities in a post-colonial era, a confirmation of past orthodoxies and an unrewriting of history. The names may yet change again, as time changes – as Tibet’s current position as an autonomous region of China alone signifies. Because Denali did not have an original name; originally it had no name at all. Nothing has a name except that we assign one to it, in order that we are able to locate ourselves. Knowing that that lump of rock is Denali helps tell us where we are, and who we are, but where we will be no cartographer can tell. The mountain has stayed the same, but the maps in every sense will always have to change.