DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — Many Mainers know the state’s highest peak is named for the ancient Abenaki or Penobscot Indian word “Katahdin,” meaning greatest or main mountain. The U.S. government added the preceding word “Mount” as the official name for maps and documents in the 19th century.
Fast forward to the present day and Baxter State Park Director Eben Sypitkowski has proposed dropping the word “Mount” and changing the official name to Katahdin, sharing the plan via email with the Piscataquis County Commissioners, who discussed the topic at their meeting Tuesday.
The commissioners made no formal motion but said they would not be in favor of the change.
Piscataquis County Manager Michael Williams said Sypitkowski made his case as follows: “As he explains the reasoning behind it, it’s a grammatical error the way it is with the Aabenaki language — like Mount Greatest Mountain.”
In his Aug. 30 email, Sypitkowski wrote there are two features that carry this official name: the “summit” or mountain itself and the corresponding township. A township, or unorganized territory, is an area of Maine having no local, incorporated municipal government. Some townships, those with residents or attractions, have specific names, such as Mount Katahdin Township.
“I’ve applied for a name change for the summit to the USGS Board on Geographic Names, and I’m trying to figure out how to approach the township name, which is apparently somehow related to the U.S. Census (I am awaiting a response on this from LUPC as well),” the park director wrote. “So I wanted to reach out and hear what you thought of this effort and any experience you have with changing a township name.”
Williams said Sypitkowski plans to talk with park officials as well, but he wanted to receive feedback from the commissioners because the mountain and township are in Piscataquis County.
Sypitkowski wrote that if the Baxter State Park Authority decides to continue with the effort to change the name of Mount Katahdin at the authority’s Oct. 4 meeting at Kidney Pond, the USGS would contact Williams to get county officials’ opinions.
“My thoughts are it’s been close to 200 years on our maps,” commissioners chair James White said. “It’s been Mount Katahdin, and it’s just now we’re hearing about people being offended? It’s going to be an expense to do all of this, and it’s going to be decades before this is changed.”
“People are going to call it Mount Katahdin anyway,” Commissioner Jim Annis said.
White mentioned that the names of Big Squaw and Little Squaw mountains outside Greenville were changed to Big Moose and Little Moose, respectively, two decades ago, to avoid the use of the word which is offensive to many Native Americans. He said he does not see the inclusion of Mount before Katahdin as a similar situation.
“I don’t see that this rises to where we need to do something because it’s been insulting to a tribe for so long,” White said.
“I don’t see the rationale for spending this kind of money,” White said. He said maps and road signs would all have to be changed, and with various tourism businesses also needing to remove the word the combined cost could be in the millions of dollars for everyone.
Commissioner Wayne Erkkinen said Mount Katahdin is the correct way to say the name of the mountain in English. He said there is also a high school serving Penobscot and Aroostook county communities named Katahdin and an attraction called Katahdin Iron Works in Piscataquis County. The word Mount differentiates the mountain and township from those entities.
“We have plenty of things to spend money on. This is not one of them,” Erkkinen said.
Williams said he would let Sypitkowski know the commissioners’ thoughts.
Messages seeking comment from Sypitkowski on Wednesday were not immediately returned.