Requiem for Ink
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Requiem for Ink

Is It Time to Rename My Mountain?

An old family photo from northwestern Montana.

If you have good hiking boots, a compass and some endurance you can visit Clay Mountain. There are no roads to it. I don’t think there’s even a hiking trail.

Earlier generations of my family settled in the far northwestern tip of Montana in the 19th century. They occasionally worked for the survey crews mapping the wilderness, and I assume that’s when one of them left behind the name Clay Mountain. It’s on the map, but only if you pay up for the detailed topographic version.

The closest I’ve ever come to my family’s little patch of history is a brief view from the gravel road spiraling up a much taller neighboring mountain. I was barely able to pick out the tree-covered bulge in the distance. My ancestors were modest in the choice of geography to which they applied the family handle.

This is a lucky thing. So far Clay Mountain has managed to avoid getting swept up in the controversies over who gets to own the place names and monuments dotting the landscape.

Consider the unlucky President William McKinley. For the century following his assassination in 1901, his name stood atop the highest peak in North America. Now the mountain is being returned to its traditional name. Mt. McKinley is out. Denali is in.

That of course was the work of the previous administration. The current occupant of the Oval Office, in his obsession with raining down oblivion on his predecessor, threatens to switch the name back to Mt. McKinley. You can imagine the name swinging back and forth with each successive administration, like a child caught up in a messy divorce and shuffled from one parent’s house to the other every weekend.

Not far from where I live in Minneapolis lies one of the nation’s best urban lakes. Growing up I knew it as Lake Calhoun. If someone said “Let’s hang out at Lake Calhoun after school,” I knew exactly where to go.

The lake was named after John C. Calhoun who, as it turns out, was an enthusiastic promoter of slavery and deporter of the area’s native population to barren government reservations. Not the sort of role model we Minnesotans want to honor with our lake names, so we’ve been thinking about changing the name to Bde Maka Ska. That’s what the original Dakota people called it. The name means White Earth Lake or White Bank Lake, we haven’t nailed the exact translation.

Recently those sorting through the naming issue landed on a more pronounceable compromise, Lake Maka Ska, and everyone is relieved. “Do you want to hang out at Lake Maka Ska after school?” That could work, and history would be happier for it.

Perhaps we can inject that sort of reasonable thinking into the fight over Confederate monuments. A lot of people want them gone from our public squares. Others argue that the monuments should stand as a testament to the honor and valor of those who fought in the Civil War.

It makes me think of an old Confederate cemetery I came across years ago while riding a Harley through the South. Here’s what I wrote in my pocket journal at the time:

The little dirt road running under an old stone arch leads to a quiet cemetery half a football field in size. It’s surrounded by a chest-high stone wall. Even for a place so far removed from the beaten path, it’s not been forgotten. Respectful walkers drift around the area where 155 Confederate soldiers are laid to rest. The soldiers never made it into battle, dying in camp from various ailments while they waited for General Briggs to muster troops for his 1862 campaign. As monuments go, it is one of the simplest and therefore most powerful I’ve seen. There’s a flag and tall white stone in the center. A metal plaque says a few words about our nation’s history. The low wall encloses it. When the place was discovered in the 1890s the wooden crosses had decayed, so the soldiers’ names are unknown. The cemetery sits there silently like the nation’s conscious. It’s a reminder that even with something so violently and bitterly divisive as the Civil War, we were all dumped into it together.

No one is going to deny the quiet testimony of 155 anonymous Confederate dead. But not all monuments are so nobly intended. The more controversial statues were erected during the Jim Crow era for the express purpose of racial intimidation. The shame of that replaces any honor they might have stood for. It’s best they be retired to the museums and battlefields where they might reclaim some of the dignity stolen by a century of misuse by hate groups.

It’s not a difficult moral line to draw. Do the monuments bring us together and make us better? Or do they push us in the other direction?

McKinley is harder. What did he ever do to warrant separating his name from the big mountain? He was famous only for stopping an assassin’s bullet.

McKinley lingered near death for eight days. Thomas Edison volunteered to send over one of the new X-Ray machines he was exhibiting at the nearby world’s fair, and it may well have saved the president’s life. But McKinley was a conservative president and believed in conservative medicine. The newfangled machine was refused and the president died a needless death. His supporters had attached his name to the mountain during the presidential campaign. After the assassination the name stuck, much to the chagrin of locals who’d always used the traditional name, Denali. And so a hundred years of arguing began.

These are good conversations to be having. It’s like taking a collective look in the mirror. Having a talk with the America we see staring back at us to find out if the last couple of hundred years have taught us anything.

The old bit of wisdom from the Book of Luke still applies. Take a seat at the low end of the table, and wait to see if someone offers you a better one. Those who exalt themselves end up humbled, and the humble shall be exalted, we are told. Get your name on a 20,310-foot mountain and it’s sure to raise questions from those with a better claim. Me, I’m happy with a tree-covered rise in Montana’s untrodden back country that only you, who’ve been kind enough to read to the end of this essay, even know exists.

Thanks for reading — let’s make it a conversation. What’s happening with the place names and public where you live? Do you have any smart ideas on how to use the issue to bring people together instead of push them apart?

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Sheldon Clay

Sheldon Clay

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Writer. Observer of mass culture, communications and creativity.