Anchorage Museum Explores Denali

Climber Jason Buttrick points out some of the more unusual items toted up Denali on climbing expeditions. Photo by Daysha Eaton

An exhibit about Denali just opened at the Anchorage Museum. It includes the 50-pound camera that Bradford Washburn used to photograph the mountain, a rare map from 1839 which uses its Athabaskan name for the for the first time and homemade crampons made in Fairbanks for the 1910 Sourdough Expedition. As Daysha Eaton reports, the exhibition, which opened earlier this month, looks at North America’s highest peak from many perspectives.

At 20, 320 feet, Denali dominates the landscape in Southcentral Alaska. At least on a clear day. And you can’t help but feel something when you see it. Curator Jenya Anichchenko, hopes the exhibit gets at that feeling:

“In short its about the relationship that people have with Denali.”

The exhibit is called “The High One: Reaching the Top”. And Climbing the peak is one of its central themes. It features historical gear, documents and photos. But it also highlights the role the mountain plays in the Alaska Native oral tradition.

“We start from a Native perception of Denali and one of the very first things you see in the exhibit is um, an Athabascan legend about how Denali formed and its a legend that was recorded in 1905. And, we had an Athabascan storyteller narrating it.”

Chickaloon tribal member, Patricia Wade tells the story of a young man who was caught in a great flood and threw his harpoon at the crest of a big wave …

“The wave he had hit with his harpoon had become a mountain. It is the one we call kat-sun-too-thit-koy-tin, the one whose top was hit by the raven. The harpoon had glanced on the mountain top as the wave hardened into rock and had struck again another huge wave changing it into a mountain. This is the one we call Denali, The High One.” (Listen to Denali full story)

Denali continues to captivate the imagination of the people who live in Alaska today drawing tourists and climbers from across the globe. According to the National Park Service, more than 37-thousand climbers attempted to summit the mountain during the past 108 years. About half of them made it. Anichtchenko says the exhibit asks the question: why do people climb it?

“You know what is that hold mountains have on peoples lives? What draws people to the mountains.”

The exhibit has several interactive displays that explore climbing, including a table where visitors can try on three different kinds of backpacks used to summit the mountain over the years. And a bulletin board where visitors can post a note saying why they like to climb. Anichtchenko reads a few.

“One of my favorites is an anonymous statement is that they climb because there are no kids or no dogs. Oh there is one funny one right here … to feel like dragon’s felt.”

The exhibit also delves into the tension between Native and colonial views of the mountain, exploring the ongoing controversy about what to call it. The story goes that in the late 1890s, a gold prospector named the mountain McKinley as political support for then-president William McKinley. The Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the mountain to the Alaska Native name, Denali, which is how it is referred to locally. However, federally, it is still known as McKinley. The exhibit lets museum goers vote for the name they prefer, by placing a bead into clear tube

“You could kind of visually see right now that Denali’s definitely winning over McKinely.”

In Alaska there are also different opinions about how to pronounce Denali. Outsiders usually say Den-ah-lee while locals tend toward Dan-al-li. They both come from the Koyukon Athabaskan name for the mountain, DEE-nah-LEE. There are 11 Athabaskan languages with their are 7 different names for the mountain, but they all mean the ‘high’ or the ‘tall’ one. I found Tracy Warner in front of the bead voting display.

“I’m with the Chugiak Elementary School out in Chugiak, Alaska and I voted for Denali because that is my son’s middle name.”

Warner’s daughter however, couldn’t decide

“I put one bead in both.”

You can cast your bead for Denali or McKinely or both and check out the rest of the exhibition, “The High One” through October 21st.

FINAL 24 denali new

You can see “The High One” at the second floor of the Atrium at the Anchorage Museum.

Previous articleAthabascan Story of Denali
Next articleIce Goes Out For Nenana Ice Classic
Daysha Eaton is the News Director at KBBI in Homer. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.