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President Obama restores Alaska Native name of highest peak

A view of Denali, formerly known as Mt. McKinley. Photo from DOI / Facebook

President Barack Obama is embarking on a historic trip to Alaska this week where he will meet with tribal leaders and visit Native communities as part of his focus on climate change.

Ahead of his three-day visit to the 49th state, the White House on Sunday announced that Mt. McKinley will be formally called Denali, the Native name for the highest mountain peak in North America. Denali means "high" or "tall" in the Koyukon Athabascan language.

“This name change recognizes the sacred status of Denali to many Alaska Natives,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a press release. “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. With our own sense of reverence for this place, we are officially renaming the mountain Denali in recognition of the traditions of Alaska Natives and the strong support of the people of Alaska.”

Alaska Natives have long sought official recognition of their original name for the peak. The state's Congressional delegation also has been pushing for the federal government to adopt a name already used across the state.

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“For centuries, Alaskans have known this majestic mountain as the ‘Great One.’ Today we are honored to be able to officially recognize the mountain as Denali," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in a press release. I’d like to thank the President for working with us to achieve this significant change to show honor, respect, and gratitude to the Athabascan people of Alaska.”

The announcement came as excitement builds for the president's first extended trip to Alaska. He is touching down in Anchorage, the state's largest city, later this afternoon to address the Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience.

However, Obama will not be attending the Rising Together event that's being hosted by the Alaska Federation of Natives and other organizations. AFN President Julie Kitka shared the bad news last week.

"This event will still go forward as an opportunity to celebrate the great diversity of our state and to ensure every Alaskan knows our great President is here in Alaska," Kitka said on AFN's website. "We want the President to know there are hard-working Alaskans who work everyday building strong communities in rural and urban Alaska and we will meet the challenges of the future head-on."

A view of Kotzebue, Alaska. Photo from Native Village of Kotzebue

But Obama will be meeting with Native leaders this evening in Anchorage after he lands, according to the White House schedule. He is will participate in a roundtable at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center prior to his remarks at the GLACIER conference.

Obama is also visiting Dillingham and Kotzebue, two predominantly Native communities. Kotzebue is in the Arctic, making Obama the first sitting president to visit the region.

"I've been looking forward to this for a long time. Not only because Alaska is one of the most beautiful places in a country that’s full of beautiful places – but because I’ll have several opportunities to meet with everyday Alaskans about what’s going on in their lives," Obama said in his weekly address on Saturday. "I'll travel throughout the state, meeting with Alaskans who live above the Arctic Circle, with Alaska natives, and with folks who earn their livelihoods through fishing and tourism. And I expect to learn a lot."

Kotzebue is home to about 3,200 people, most of them Inupiat. He's expected to deliver remarks there, according to NANA Corporation, an Alaska Native regional corporation.

In addition to Dillingham and Kotzebue, Obama will be visiting Seward on Tuesday. His trip concludes on Wednesday.

Relevant Documents:
White House Fact Sheet: President Obama in Alaska (August 30, 2015)

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President Obama to visit Native villages on historic trip to Alaska (8/25)
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Alaska Natives to welcome President Obama at end of month (8/17)

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