In a show of respect toward Alaska’s native peoples, President Obama announced on Sunday that the Interior Department will restore Mount McKinley’s original name: Denali. The Athabaskan title is a far better fit than the name of a president who never set foot in Alaska.
While he’s at it, Obama ought to pay the same respect to the Salish and Sahaptin people who live in the shadows of another great peak, Mount Rainier.
Pronunciations differed from dialect to dialect, but tribes commonly called the mountain Tacoma or Tahoma. Following the native practice, generations of non-Indians also called it “Mount Tacoma” well into the 20th century. This wasn’t a case of a long-forgotten name from a vanished tribe.
The U.S. government nevertheless stripped the mountain of the native term and rechristened it “Rainier.” Yet “Rainier” has even less connection to the actual mountain than “McKinley” has to Denali.
In 1792, Capt. George Vancouver was exploring Puget Sound on behalf of the British government when he spotted the towering volcanic dome in the far distance. He arbitrarily named it after a friend and fellow British naval officer, Peter Rainier.
Rainier fought sea battles against the fledgling United States in the Revolution. He had never been to the Puget Sound region or, for that matter, any part of the American continent. The label was a foreign graft from the beginning.
And – like “Mount McKinley” – it was an act of cultural imperialism.
The geography of North America had been explored and named thousands of years before the British, French and Spanish reached its shores. In some cases, explorers and settlers retained the original Native American terminology, retaining words like “Massachusetts,” “Mississippi” and “Dakota.”
But they often erased the lands’ names as they pushed out the original inhabitants, dispossessing the native nomenclature along with the native peoples. In the 1800s, the United States Board on Geographic Names was standing by to formalize the linguistic theft. In 1890, the board rejected any Native American terms for the great peak of the Cascade Range and went with the British admiral.
Returning the tribes’ ancient territories to them would cost more trillions of dollars than the nation has. But restoring their words to the land is easily done; it would be a courtesy and an overdue acknowledgment of injustice.
Non-Indian geographic names are not holy writ. With Denali, Obama has just demonstrated how possible it is to give a mountain back its original title. “Mount Rainier” – Mount Tacoma or Mount Tahoma – can and should be next.