Feds Expunge Racist Name

Feds Expunge Racist Name

Above: Howard Lake in Washington state (NPS photo)

NOTE: The following is a release from the office of Sen. Pramila Jayapal of Seattle. After that is my original story, which provides some context to this development.

State Senator Pramila Jayapal joined Washington state leaders and residents today in applauding the federal government’s decision to rename a lake and a stream in the Stehekin Valley of north-central Washington “Howard Lake” and “Howard Creek.” The new names honor a Black miner, Wilson Howard, who staked claims at the lake 125 years ago.

The official vote to rename the lake and its associated stream took place earlier today (Thursday, Nov. 12) at a meeting of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in Washington, D.C. In the vote, the federal government replaced the previous names – “Coon Lake” and “Coon Creek” – widely regarded as racial slurs. The lake and creek are located in the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, which is administered by the National Park Service. The Park Service earlier this fall reversed its opposition to the name change and petitioned the U.S. Board to replace the “Coon” names with “Howard.”

“I applaud the federal government’s decision today – in a small but significant way, it rights a wrong from our past, and honors the intrepid spirit of Wilson Howard and miners like him. The National Park Service and the U.S. Board on Geographic Names have done the right thing,” Sen. Jayapal said. In September, Jayapal had organized a joint bipartisan letter from more than 50 Washington state legislators to federal officials, advocating for the name change.

Today’s vote concludes more than eight years of advocacy by Washington state residents to change the lake and creek names. In 2007 and 2008 Washington state officials changed the names to “Howard Lake” and “Howard Creek,” but the federal naming board at the time rejected the change. Today’s vote aligns the federal government with the state’s earlier decision.

“I’m looking forward to seeing those Howard Lake trail signs!” said Jonathan Rosenblum, the original petitioner for the name change and a constituent of Sen. Jayapal. “It’s a fitting and overdue tribute to the pioneer Wilson Howard.”

Rosenblum lives in Seattle but his family often visits the Stehekin Valley and the lake. He noted that hundreds of people from around the country signed letters, made phone calls and presented testimony over the years advocating for the name change. “Our collective actions against unjust bias in all its forms, and in all its places, will make for a more just world, for ourselves and our children,” he said.

Jayapal said she hopes that the National Park Service can use its upcoming centennial celebration as an opportunity to unveil a new platform for inclusion. Currently only 22 percent of the Park Service’s visitors are minorities, while almost 37 percent of America’s population is minority. “I hope that the Park Service will use examples like Howard Lake to encourage more diversity in our parks,” she said.

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by Glenn Nelson

Prompted by Seattle activists, politicians and media, the National Park Service announced on Thursday that it will reverse its position and recommend that the U.S. Board on Geographic Names change the names of a lake and creek located in the Stehekin Valley in Washington state from Coon Lake and Coon Creek to Howard Lake and Howard Creek.

The new names pay homage to Wilson Howard, an African American prospector who held several mining claims in the area in the 1890s and had named the lake for himself. The Park Service said it received evidence of those claims from the Washington State Bureau of Mines this month.

It was the National Park Service’s opposition that led to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names refusing in 2009 to follow the state of Washington’s lead on the name change to Howard Lake. Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, where the lake and creek are located, is part of the North Cascades National Park Complex.

Jonathan Rosenblum, a Seattle-based union organizer, successfully petitioned the state to change the names in 2007 and pressed the federal government to follow suit. The lake and creek still is known on federal signage and sources by a term many consider to be a racial slur.

“We need to recognize that the Park Service changed its position only because hundreds of people came forward to say ‘No’ to racism and ‘Yes’ to honoring and recognizing Mr. Howard and his contribution to our past,” Rosenblum said. “Congratulations to the hundreds of people who wrote letters, signed petitions, made phone calls, and presented testimony over the years.”

Rosenblum, a frequent visitor to the area, where his wife was a third-generation resident, also said he is “looking forward to seeing those Howard Lake trail signs! It’s a fitting and overdue tribute to the pioneer Wilson Howard. I applaud the National Park Service leadership and staff for responding to the outpouring of support for the name change.”

Efforts for the name change were renewed after the Obama administration’s recent decision to change the name of North America’s tallest mountain from Mount McKinley to Denali.

Seattle Democratic Sen. Pramila Jayapal wrote 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, worked to enlist caucus members to “help in getting rid of this racist name.”

Through research conducted by its North Cascades unit, the National Park Service in 2009 raised doubt over intent in the use of the term, “coon.” Rosenblum’s research had revealed an absence of racoons in the area.

“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,” Craig Dalby, a spokesman for the Pacific West Region of the Park Service said in a statement to The Trail Posse and High Country News last week. “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.”

Recent references to that 2009 recommendation prompted the NPS to reexamine the record and resulted in its change in position, the agency said in its release.

“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,” said Karen Taylor-Goodrich, superintendent of North Cascades National Park Complex. “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.”

The National Park Service said it will make its recommendation to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in the near future.

“The reality is that, whatever the intent of the original name, it was a name that was deeply offensive to many communities of color,” Jayapal said. “Especially as we think about how to ensure that the treasure of our national parks is utilized by all communities, it is time to come into the 21st century with our names and language.”

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