Since President Barack Obama decided to rename Mount McKinley, why not also restore the Native American name of Mount Rainier, the iconic Washington state peak named for a British admiral who fought the Americans during the Revolutionary War?
That’s what advocates in the long battle to rename Mount Rainier as Mount Tacoma or Tahoma want to know.
“It’s a much more compelling argument to rename the mountain here than in Alaska,” said Bill Baarsma, former mayor of the City of Tacoma and president of the Tacoma Historical Society. “Why are we continuing to name this mountain after a British admiral that slayed Americans in the Revolutionary War?”
Federal officials, though, say there are no plans to rename Mount Rainier and that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s order changing Mount McKinley to its Koyukon Athabascan name of Denali was unique.
“This was maybe a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said Lou Yost, executive secretary of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which normally approves such renaming.
A proposal to rename Mount McKinley to Denali was in front of the board for 40 years. The board didn’t take action because there was a debate in Congress, with politicians from McKinley’s home state of Ohio managing to block Alaskan efforts to change the name before Obama stepped in.
Mount Rainier is a different case, Yost said. The board has already rejected an effort to rename Mount Rainier and “the secretary and probably the president would defer to what the board has done,” he said.
Interior Secretary Jewell is no stranger to the issue. She’s from the Seattle area and climbed Mount Rainier seven times. Jewell’s spokeswoman, Jessica Kershaw, declined to say what Jewell thinks of the name Mount Rainier but indicated that a renaming is not in the plans.
“The long and short here is that there is no current proposal to rename Mount Rainier before the U.S. Board of Geographic names, which is the body that brings forward these recommendations to the secretary for consideration,” Kershaw said.
The board is currently considering proposals to rename Devils Tower in Wyoming to Bear Lodge and Harney Peak in South Dakota to Black Elk Peak.
Connie McCloud, the culture director for the Puyallup Tribe of Washington state, said she hopes that a new effort is launched to convince the board to rename Mount Rainier. McCloud, who favors the name Tahoma, said the mountain is central to the culture of indigenous people.
“Our creation stories tell us of a time of great flood and that our people put their things in their canoes and we tied our canoes to the top of the mountain. And that’s how we survived that time,” she said.
McCloud said the mountain shouldn’t be named after a man who never even set foot on North American soil. “Our people have always lived here and that’s something that isn’t recognized,” she said.
British explorer George Vancouver named it Mount Rainier in 1792 after a friend and fellow British naval officer who fought sea battles against the Americans.
The board of geographic names last took up a proposal to rename Mount Rainier in 2009 and decided “the overwhelming support and the predominate use of the locals was for Mount Rainier,” Yost said.
“It’s not the board’s mission to restore historical names, it’s to make standard for federal use the name that is used locally by the majority of the people who use the name on a regular basis,” Yost said.
There is essentially universal support in Alaska for renaming Mount McKinley to Denali, with state officials from both parties and Alaska’s Congressional delegation pushing the issue for decades. Almost no one who lived in Alaska used the name Mount McKinley, and anyone who did so in conversation was immediately marked as a tourist.
Mount Rainier, on the other hand, is a commonly used name in Washington state – except by those engaged in the long effort to restore the Native American name.
That effort has been centered in Tacoma, a city that was renamed in the 1860s from Commencement City in order to reflect the Native American word for the mountain, Baarsma said.
Tacoma civic boosters have fought for more than a century to change the name of the mountain, most often to Mount Tacoma, hoping a link between the mountain and city would be good for development.
They were opposed by Seattle interests who wanted to keep Rainier, a conflict Baarsma attributes to rivalry over Tacoma being chosen as the terminus for the intercontinental railroad in 1873.
Baarsma said it has been an emotional issue for “old-timers here in Tacoma who still remember the ‘justice for the mountain’ efforts, efforts to restore the rightful name.”
“My mother who was born here, raised here, lived here almost all of her life, never uttered the word Rainier, ever,” Baarsma said. “It was always ‘the mountain,’ or Mount Tacoma.”
John Findlay, a historian at the University of Washington, said, “I am not sure there is a lot of support outside of Tacoma for the name change.”
Findlay, who specializes in Northwest history, said that he sees the point of those questioning why the mountain should be named after a British admiral.
“But the name has stuck for a long, long time,” he said.