Why are the feds sticking with a racist name for a Washington lake?


Update from HCN staff, Oct. 23, 2015: Two days after this piece was published, the National Park Service reversed its decision and recommended that the U.S. Board of Geographic Names change the name of Coon Lake to Howard Lake, Glenn Nelson reports.

“We recognize that our previous decision on this issue overlooked relevant information, and would like to offer our thanks to the citizens who researched and pursued this issue,” Karen Taylor-Goodrich, superintendent of North Cascades National Park Complex, said in a statement. “It is our opinion now that recognizing Mr. Howard for his role in the development of the Stehekin Valley by renaming the lake and creek in his honor is entirely appropriate.”

In central Washington, one of Jonathan Rosenblum's favorite fishing holes is a lake near the foot of 8,122-foot Mount McGregor, where the Pacific Crest Trail snakes past the North Cascades. A union organizer from Seattle, Rosenblum loves to hike to the lake with his young daughters and ply them with the history of the region. One of his favorite stories is about Wilson Howard, a black gold miner, who braved the elements and unknown landscape to file a late-1800s mining claim in the area and named the lake after himself.

Because of Rosenblum's 2007 petition, Washington state now officially calls the lake by what is believed to be its oldest known name, Howard Lake. The federal government, however, recognizes the lake by a name that causes the jaws of most people of color to drop: Coon Lake. Rosenblum's research shows that some white locals began calling the lake "Coon Lake" in the early 1900s, after Howard's departure; further sleuthing uncovered no raccoons in the area.

The federal government did not follow the usual course of supporting the state's action, mostly because of opposition from the National Park Service, which manages the area that contains the lake.

Rosenblum is quick to recognize the irony of the situation. Washington Gov. Jay Islee, who is white, calls the place Howard Lake, after the black miner who named it. President Barack Obama, who of course is black, is supposed to call it by a term often used as a racial slur and tantamount to fighting words.

The Park Service, acting on research from its North Cascades unit, originally defended its stance by claiming that there was ambiguity around the use of the term "coon."

"At the time, no evidence was found that the name was intended as a pejorative term or racial slur; if we had found such evidence, we would have recommended changing the name immediately," said Craig Dalby, a spokesman for the Pacific West Region of the Park Service. "The National Park Service is re-examining its position because of ongoing community concerns and will provide feedback to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in the near future."

In the years leading up to its 2016 centennial, the Park Service has done a lot of talking and writing about the need for diversity and inclusiveness. But it has done little to address the issue: Its own ranks remain 82 percent white, as does the estimated percentage of park visitors, according to the agency's 2011 survey. The controversy over Howard Lake gives the agency the opportunity to correct a historic wrong and send a much-needed signal about diversity.

Seattle Democratic Sen. Pramila Jayapal has written a letter urging the state's congressional delegation, as well as Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, to press a federal name change to Howard Lake. Fifty of her fellow state legislators, including six Republicans, have signed it. Another local activist, Eddie Rye Jr., whose daughter Angela is the former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus, says he has been enlisting caucus members to "help in getting rid of this racist name."

By following the Park Service's lead on "coon," the federal board on geographic names butted up against its own policies, which say that the board "will not adopt a name for federal usage that is determined by the board to be derogatory to a particular racial or ethnic group, gender, or religious group."

The National Park Service seems irrationally resistant to the idea of honoring Howard. It filed a competing request in 2007 for the lake and a nearby creek to be named after William McComb, a member of the first road-clearing crew in Stehekin Valley. The proposal was rejected. Rosenblum strongly believes that changing the name to McComb would not have been an acceptable compromise. Removing the homage to Howard, the African American miner, was a form of what Rosenblum calls "eracism."

Times change. The issue of Coon Lake's name gained new steam following the Obama administration's recent decision to change the name of North America's tallest mountain from Mount McKinley to Denali. The state of Alaska had been petitioning for such a change for 40 years, and the dispute was resolved by the stroke of Secretary Sally Jewell's pen. A similar secretarial order could avoid a repeat of what already has been years of filings hearings, and also prevent a dispute over a 15-acre lake that, in this country's current racial climate, could get ugly.

Such an order also might save the National Park Service from itself. A projected nonwhite U.S. majority that is hostile to our national parks spells doom for the already resource-strapped agency. It's past time for the Park Service to back away from its misguided opposition, encourage Secretary Jewell to come to its rescue, and allow another black life to matter.

Glenn Nelson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the column service of High Country News. He is an Asian-American journalist in Seattle who founded The Trail Posse, trailposse.com, to encourage diversity and inclusion in the outdoors.

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