Washington state’s North Cascades National Park is world-famous for its glaciers—over 300 of them—and its unparalleled, diverse array of plant and animal life. But it recently become notorious for more human reasons: it’s home to Coon Lake and Coon Creek, a pair of natural wonders with deeply racist names designed as a slur to the African-American miner who had mining claims at the lake. After a campaign that took almost a decade, the lake and creek will be renamed Howard Lake and Howard Creek, in his honor.
While this is a happy ending, the reality is that there are names across the United States that must be changed proactively and it should not take an almost-decade long campaign to do so. Language and names matter in signaling that our public lands are for everyone.
Jonathan Rosenblum, a constituent, first brought the “Coon Lake” issue to my attention some months ago. Rosenblum was moved to action in 2007, when he came upon the lake while hiking near his family’s home in the Stehekin Valley. Disturbed by the racial slur, he began researching the origins of the name, verifying that there had been no raccoons in the area and that the name was linked to an African-American miner, Wilson Howard, who had mining claims on the land in the early 1890s.
Rosenblum began what turned into an eight-year campaign to change the name from Coon Lake and Coon Creek to Howard Lake and Howard Creek, to honor Mr. Howard. He doggedly pursued his goal through the bureaucratic process set up to change the name of a geographic place on federal land, organizing the community to go to the State Board of Geographic Names and finally to the National Board of Geographic Names.
In a big surprise move, in 2009, the National Board rejected the State’s wishes to change the name, citing lack of evidence that the name was racist or intended as a slur to Mr. Howard. Strangely, this now meant that while the names had been changed in Washington state maps, the same lake and creek were referred to by the different, old name on federal maps.
When Rosenblum approached me, the matter had been lying fallow for almost eight years. Attention had arisen again because of the name changes of the renaming of Mt. McKinley and Mt. Rainier, among others. I spearheaded a letter on behalf of the Washington State Legislature to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names formally requesting that they reconsider their decision. My letter was cosigned by more than 50 state legislators, including some Republicans. Over the past three months, we worked closely with Rosenblum, National Park Service representatives, the community and our members of the Congressional delegation to ask that the issue being re-opened and reconsidered.
These efforts have paid off: today, the National Parks Service will re-open the issue and recommend the name be changed to honor Mr. Howard.
That’s good news—but we can and must do better.
We have a responsibility to ensure that we create a welcoming environment for all people in our country to enjoy our public lands and that we honor the contributions of so many people of color who were some of our earliest and most intrepid explorers. As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service next year, we should push our state and federal government to take three important steps toward this goal.
First, federal and state authorities should direct national and state parks officials to scour the lists of asset names and proactively identify the ones that are racist or have racist connotations. The sad truth is that maps of America are heavy with exclusionary names like Pickaninny Buttes, Negro Creek, Squaw Bay and Chinaman’s Hat as well as more Coon Lakes. Government should bear the burden of fixing these disrespectful and unwelcoming names, rather than requiring an arduous eight-year process to erase a slur from our parks. It can be hard work to change a name—new signs must be made, new maps must be printed—but the inclusion that these changes foster will reap rewards for generations to come.
[Note: It must be said here during this latest battle on Coon Lake, some have argued that we are being too politically correct, that these names were not actually intended to be racist. My response is that there is an entire category of names that come from an era when there is plenty of evidence that they were, in fact, intended to be racist. For example, the word “coon”—while many associate it with raccoons, is actually said to come also from the Portuguese word “barracoon,” which was the name for the pens that held slaves and criminals during the Atlantic slave trade days. The author Sherman Alexie, when asked about this recently, said (paraphrased here and less bluntly) that if you have doubt about whether a name is racist or not, ask yourself if you would call a black person a “coon” or a Native American a “Redskin” to his or her face. If the answer is no, then it’s a racist term. Even if the intention wasn’t racist, by the way, the term is still racist and must be treated in that way for the way it occurs to those who are sensitive to its origins versus those who are unaware.]
A second important step would be for the National Park Service to use its anniversary as an opportunity to unveil a new platform for inclusion. Data show that just 22 percent of NPS’s annual visitors are minorities, where almost 37 percent of America’s population is now minority. The NPS platform for inclusion should lay out plans to increase representation of people of color within the park service employees and to have targeted outreach to communities of color to encourage their usage of our natural treasures. Diverse representation creates a bridge to communities who might not otherwise see themselves in certain environments or feel culturally understood.
Finally, the environmental community—including nonprofit organizations and elected officials—that has been such a strong steward of our natural resources needs to actively engage with communities of color to ensure their representation in that movement. This ranges from developing a more holistic and inclusive movement for climate justice to implementing targeted programs that focus on kids of color getting the experience of the great outdoors. Imagine, for example, the impact if Washington state’s No Child Left Inside program set a goal for itself of reaching 50 percent minority attendance.
My interest in the opening of our parks is not simply academic. As an immigrant from India where a village may be over a million people, I was quite literally terrified at the thought of camping or hiking in the woods. It wasn’t until eight years after I came to the United States for college that I finally took a one-night backpacking trip to Grand Tetons National Park with my then-partner. It poured. It was dark. I was convinced I would wind up in the belly of a bear. I finally managed to fall asleep, and when I woke up the next morning, the walls of my tent were glowing in sunlight. I unzipped my tent and stepped outside to a landscape that unfolded into never-ending beauty: tall peaks that glistened with snow; patches of lush green trees that had been there for centuries, exploding to the sky; a shimmering lake with an occasional sign of the life below the surface; and solitude, just me and the outdoors. For the first time, the solitude felt comforting and deeply empowering. I became an avid hiker, backpacking and hiking all across our beautiful national parks here in Washington, in Montana, in the Canadian Rockies and, yes, even in my native country of India, in the wilds of Ladakh and the Himalayan mountains.
Thousands of families across our country deserve that same experience. It’s time to bring America into the 21st century and change these names.
Pramila Jayapal is a state senator from Seattle's 37th District.