Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmakr: On the decision-making committee!
  • Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark, member of the decision-making committee!
I have a long-running fascination with the obscure panels that every state—as well as the federal government—set up to rule on what various lakes, mountains, hills, and rivers should officially be called.

Here in Washington, our obscure panel is known as the Committee on Geographic Names, and its members include the Commissioner of Public Lands, the State Librarian, the Director of the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, a representative from Washington's Native American tribes, and three members from the public.

And, on October 19—mark your calendars!—this committee will convene to consider whether eastern Washington's Soap Lake (recommended here) should henceforth be referred to as Lake Smokium. The idea is to give this lake, once known for its healing waters, a name that means "healing waters" in the language of Native Americans from the area. As historian and writer Robert Ruby put it to the Columbia Basin Herald, this change could "demonstrate the good faith of non-Indians today for Indian people and their values and history."

It's is not a new idea. For example, various state panels have, in recent years, been giving the nation's Squaw Creeks and Squaw Lakes (there are a lot of them) new names that are less offensive. In this vein, our Committee on Geographic Names will also be considering whether to change Columbia County's Squaw Creek into Columbia County's Teemux Creek. And, from Jefferson County, there's a proposal to change Squamish Harbor to a name that's spelled with characters I don't know how to recreate here and is pronounced "Nu-Ha-A."

No doubt some of these proposed changes will be controversial, as they always are. But I also see potential for geographic place-name drama in some of the "clarifications" the board is pursuing this year. Among them: Just how many islands are included in San Juan County's Gossip Islands? Where, exactly, is the official location of Kangaroo Point? In Mason County, is it Sister Point or is it Sister Points? And come on, how should Tharold Pond really be spelled?

Can't wait for October 19.