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My Turn: The oppressive message behind 'McKinley'

Posted: February 7, 2013 - 1:08am

As a Filipino man who is married to a Koyukon Athabascan woman, and with whom I have three “Filibascan” children, I have a deeper reason for wanting — no, needing — to have North America’s tallest peak renamed than just because our 25th president “never (even) set foot in our state,” as Senator Murkowski says.

Yes, it has to do with the fact that Athabascans have called it “Denali” for centuries, as Senator Murkowski also argues. But it goes even beyond that.

Yes, it’s related to the past, but it also deals with the present and the future.

Let me explain.

Calling this mountain “McKinley” instead of “Denali” perpetuates oppression. It sends the message that a White Man’s name is more official, desired, recognized, and acceptable. It insults many Athabascans and other Alaska Native Peoples. It reminds many of the painful period of colonialism and blatant racism, when Alaska Native worldviews and cultures — especially languages — were devalued, demonized, inferiorized, and forcefully replaced by what was portrayed as more civilized ways.

What brings me even further over the edge is that McKinley also saw Filipinos as inferior, stating that it was the United States’ duty to “…educate Filipinos…and civilize and Christianize them.” McKinley was rationalizing America’s involvement in a war against Filipinos in 1898 — a war that cost the United States millions of dollars and thousands of soldiers, and a war when millions of Filipinos were killed. America’s civilizing and Christianizing efforts took place even though, by that time, the majority of Filipinos were already Catholic and that the Philippines already had a university by 1611 — long before the first American university was founded in 1636. Filipinos were regarded as children or uncivilized savages, needing to be trained and taught, similar to how African Americans and Native Americans were treated by the United States.

That was the past, and it was painful. So what about the present?

To honor someone who held racist and oppressive beliefs against non-Western or non-White peoples in a state as culturally and ethnically diverse as Alaska is to continue — in an institutionalized manner — the colonialism and oppression of the past. What message are we sending to our Alaska Native brothers and sisters, to Filipino Alaskans who have been in this state as early as 1788, and to the other ethnic and cultural groups in Alaska today? Do we want to tell Alaska Native Peoples today that their names, languages, and cultures are still not as good or “legitimate” as Western names, languages, and cultures? Do we want to tell people today that oppression of the past is OK, or at least, it’s time we forget?

Why can’t we just let people, when they look at the mountain, simply experience its majestic beauty without reminding them of the painful past that was brought on by its namesake, and without reminding them of how their “kind” are still looked down upon and devalued to this day? What message are we sending them by “honoring” a person who devalued, inferiorized, and belittled their heritage? Calling this mountain “McKinley” sends the message that — not only is it OK to be racist — you might even be honored by having a mountain named after you.

What about the future?

My kids are Filipino, Athabascan, and American. All will be very important to their identities. All will be big parts of how they feel about themselves — their self-esteem. Their self-esteem will be influenced by their colonized past and their society’s messages about their Filipino, Athabascan, and American characteristics. When my kids think about all of their different “parts,” I don’t want them to value one over the other, especially at the expense of the other. I want them to value and love each part equally.

There are many others out there — Native, Filipino, both, or something else — let’s think of them all.

Let’s build a society that will help them love and be proud of all parts of their selves.

Removing McKinley’s name from the mountain sends the right message, a message that should make all Americans — today and the future — to be proud of this part of their selves.

• In addition to being a husband and a father, E.J.R. David, Ph.D., is also an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where he also serves as the Director of the Alaska Native Community Advancement in Psychology (ANCAP) Program. He was born in the Philippines and was raised in Barrow, Alaska, and the author of “Brown Skin, White Minds: Filipino -/ American Postcolonial Psychology.” He was honored by the American Psychological Association (APA) Minority Fellowship Program (MFP) in 2012 with the Early Career Award in Research for Distinguished Contributions to the Field of Racial and Ethnic Minority Psychology, citing his “outstanding scientific contributions and the application of this knowledge toward the improved mental and physical well-being of people of color.”

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