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Mt. Foraker: “Denali’s Wife”

By Katie McCaffrey

Indigenous groups have fought for generations to be represented on maps, and well-known alpinist Colin Haley feels strongly that colonialist names given to our mountains should revert to their traditional Indigenous names whenever possible. Mountaineers are apt to focus on the intangible aspect of climbing and its connection with the natural world, and tend to live with a minimal emphasis on material wealth and power. Traditional names maintain and deepen our connection to the land by describing the landscape, its cultural uses, or its animal and plant life. Industrialized society has lost its connection to the land, tending to carve it up for political and economic purposes. But while colonial powers have pressured Indigenous cultures to lose their closeness with the land, the restoration of historical names can help begin to heal the injuries.

Last summer I spent a lot of time on Denali’s West Buttress. I was lucky enough to have an internship with Colby Coombs and Caitlin Palmer’s Alaska Mountaineering School, and I spent several months learning the ropes from an amazing group of climbers who lead clients on some of the most amazing ascents on Earth. The hours of slogging up the West Buttress gave us all ample opportunity to look over at Mt. Foraker, which the local Dena’ina traditionally called Sultana, “The Woman” or Menale, “Denali’s Wife.”

Sultana was renamed in 1899 in honor of Ohio politician Joseph Foraker who was sworn in as state senator the same day that Ohio’s William McKinley (Denali’s temporary namesake) became president of the United States. Senator Foraker gained a reputation for advancing civil rights through his support for blacks and for Cubans fighting Spanish imperialism, but he had to leave politics in disgrace after it was revealed he had accepted bribe money from oil companies in exchange for favors.

Sultana’s neighbor, traditionally called Begguya or “The Child,” was mistakenly renamed when an early mountaineer attempted to climb nearby Kahiltna Dome in an expedition financed by his aunt Anna Falconnet Hunter. He wanted to repay her by naming the mountain for her but a surveyor mixed up Begguya and Kahiltna Dome and gave the Hunter name to the wrong mountain.

Sultana, Begguya, and Denali (from left to right)

Denali National Park, Alaska. Carol M. Highsmith. Library of Congress

Like William McKinley and Anna Hunter, Foraker never visited the Alaska Range or had anything to do with the mountain named after him.

Alaska’s congressional delegation, opposed bitterly by Ohio representatives, fought for many years to restore Denali’s local name, and finally Mt. McKinley has now officially reverted to Denali. Alaskans are gratified to have thrown off the shackles of Outside officialdom. It’s time for Sultana to join Denali. And Begguya belongs with them, as well.

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