While many of Washington’s regional names honor historical cultures — such as Kitsap or Chinook — there remains a range of geographic titles that reach back to less honorable moments.
State Sen. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, has begun an effort to identify and list Washington’s ethnically and racially offensive names. So far, her list identifies 36 locales but her office claims at least 48 such places could exist in Washington. According to Jayapal’s office, there will be an immediate focus to change other offensive titles around the state. The aim is to have the first set of names changed by the end of 2016.
Washington has a few “Negro Creeks” and a range of lakes, bays, and valleys that reference “squaw.” In King County, a place called “Coon Creek” has been identified and is up for a change.
“We can’t change the past, but we can change our course so as not to repeat our past mistakes,” Jayapal said. “No injustice should be below our notice, so while some of these creeks or lakes may be in remote places, they stand as a constant reminder of times when women, Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and others were thought of and treated as less than a whole and autonomous person. It is pretty incredible that in 2016 we still have dozens of racist and offensive place names on record in our state.”
So far, the list contains about 48 places around Washington that use words such as “coon,” “Jim Crow,” “negro,” “chinaman,” “redman,” and “squaw” in their titles. Jayapal’s office notes that “squaw” is the most commonly used offensive name in the state and nation. Jayapal intends to send a letter to the 29 confederated tribes in Washington state asking for input on the name-changing effort and for any suggestions of new names to replace offensive titles.
“The fact is, words matter,” Jayapal said. “These names would not be used in conversation today and there is no reason to keep them alive in locations in our state. Instead of clinging to relics of an intolerant past, let’s rename these places so they celebrate the people and cultures that made Washington into the wonderful place it is today.”
In 2015, Jayapal was part of the successful effort to change the name of Coon Lake in Washington’s North Cascades region to Howard Lake.