The state of our names
State committee to hear controversial proposals to change geographic names
Across the country, at least 15 states have a river or tributary named North River, including Washington. But what about Nəxʷx̣áʔəy or duxᵂho’bud or Téemux? Will these names and others, some that possess Native origins and predate European exploration, find their way on to Washington state maps?
That all depends if members of the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names vote to change or clarify the legal designations of more than 20 land features and waterways across the state.
“If I knew what the committee was going to do,” said committee executive secretary Caleb Maki, “I’d pick lotto numbers.”
The seven-member committee will hear proposals to alter the names of state geographic sites Thursday, Nov. 16. Maki said all proposed names come from Washington citizens, who provide documents or public comment in support of a change.
Take Nəxʷx̣áʔəy. In May, a tribal anthropologist with the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe submitted a proposal to change the name of Squamish Harbor, on the west side of Hood Canal in Jefferson County, to the S’klallam language traditional and historic name for the area. Nəxʷx̣áʔəy has a phonetic spelling: “Nu-Ha-A.”
Documents submitted with the proposal state members of the Wilkes Expedition named the region Suquamish Harbor in 1841, but due to a cartographic error, the first “u” was dropped in 1869. After the misspelling was reflected on maps for years, the name became Squamish Harbor, said Maki.
But another person submitted a different proposal to change the name of the same harbor to duxᵂho’bud, which is the name of the landscape and shoreline in the Twana, or Skokomish, language. Maki said he is still waiting to hear back from the proponent to obtain a phonetic spelling.
These two proposals complicate matters, said Maki, because last year the committee approved a proposal by the Suquamish Tribe to reinstate the first “u” and reclaim the waterway as Suquamish Harbor. He said the name will not be altered until the committee considers the two current proposals that invoke native names. “I’ll be curious to see how they vote,” said Maki.
The committee sits under the state’s Department of National Resources and only hears changes on geographic features such as mountains, rivers, creeks, lakes and harbors. The committee can also hear proposals on townships but has no power to change city names. Members include the commissioner of public lands, a state librarian, director of the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, a state tribal representative and three state residents.
What’s in a name?
The 21 proposals were put forward for a variety of reasons. Some proponents seek to return names to tribal spellings. Others want to correct misspellings or clarify locations. Some people want to rename a land mass or body of water to honor a deceased person whose life had historical importance for the area. A geographic site can only be renamed for someone who has been dead at least five years. “It’s a morbid rule,” said Maki.
A number of proponents want to replace offensive names with more culturally sensitive ones. In Columbia County, proponents have asked to change Squaw Creek to Téemux Creek. Most name changes, Maki said, usually replace derogatory names. “We had a Negro Creek and Coon Lake and Coon Creek,” he said.
Each proposal for a name change must go through a multi-step process. First, the name goes to the committee for initial consideration. If approved, the proposal comes to the committee a second time, usually six months later, for a final consideration. If approved a second time, the committee passes the name on to the state board on geographic names.
If board members approve it, state maps can be altered to reflect the change. Once accepted by the state board, it goes on to the federal board of geographic name changes. An approval by the federal board means changes on national maps.
Maki said the federal board often goes along with the state’s recommendation. But there have been some differences. More than six years ago, the state board voted to name a newly formed glacier on Mt. Rainier, Tulutson Glacier. The federal board wanted Crater Glacier. “But then it melted several years later,” he said, “so it became a moot point.”
The federal government also requires each name change be written in Roman alphabet, Maki said. That can create a tough path for proposed names such as duxᵂho’bud with no phonetic alternative.
The state board also suggests proposals avoid hyphens and apostrophes. Names with commercial overtones should also be bypassed. “Otherwise, we’d have Pepsi Mountain,” said Maki.
Those are fighting words
Geographic name changes may seem like a small potatoes but Maki said that at times proposals, which are a doorway into history, create tension. “Too often, it turns into a Hatfield and McCoy situation,” he said.
In the 1980s, the board heard numerous proposals to change the name of Mt. Rainier. Some proponents wanted Mt. Tacoma. Others suggested Mt. Tahoma or Mt. Tahhoma. A number of Native tribes pushed for Ti’Swaq. The board denied all of the proposals, Maki said, and members decided they wouldn’t rehear a proposal because a name change would have serious financial implications.
But Maki said someone contacted him recently who wanted to restart a campaign to change Mt. Rainier’s name. So far, he hasn’t received the proposal, but it could arrive any day. “I’ll be getting a lot of opinions on that one,” Maki said.
The current list of applications contains a proposal to change Soap Lake, east of the Cascade Mountains in Grant County, to Lake Smokiam. One of two proponents wrote that more than 11,000 years ago, the neighboring
indigenous people named it Smokiam, which translates into “Healing Waters.” Euro-Americans changed the name to Soap Lake just before 1900. “This act [of reinstating Lake Smokiam] would be the repatriation of the lake’s name to the Indians,” he wrote.
But the city of Soap Lake opposes the name change, even while its municipal website notes the city name originates from Smokiam. Other opponents include the Grant County Board of Commissioners, the county sheriff and Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. The original proposal for changing the lake’s name came to the committee in April 2010. The current proposal, which contains supporting documents and letters of opposition, runs just shy of 700 pages.
When the original proposal to call the water mass Lake Smokiam arrived in early 2010, the naming board faced its own dilemma. The state legislature had just eliminated it, due to budget cuts. The vote meant Washington was the only state not to have a geographic board. When the group became active again in November 2011, it was rechristened the state naming committee. Staff members who worked with the department of natural resources then became members of the state naming board.
Maki said that not only can state residents comment in writing on proposed names change, the public is invited to comment at committee meetings. When the committee hears proposals for names changes to Squamish Harbor, he said he hopes to have a phonetic pronunciation of duxᵂho’bud. Maki said he’s looking forward to be committee’s discussion on the proposal: “This is one of the doozies.”
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