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Call It Howard Lake: Park Service Reverses Stand On Racist Name

Howard Lake, north of Stehekin in Washington's North Cascades.
Courtesy of Mike Annee
Howard Lake, north of Stehekin in Washington's North Cascades.

A lake in the North Cascades should be renamed Howard Lake after a black prospector, the National Park Service said Thursday afternoon in a reversal of its position.

Proponents of the change had argued that the name Coon Lake was racist and that it should be renamed to Howard Lake after Wilson Howard. He was an African-American prospector who had mining claims in the region in the 1890s and was one of only two black miners to stake claims in the North Cascades.

In a statement, the Park Service said that it erred in 2009 when it recommended to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names that the change not be made.

The state of Washington made the change in 2007 after a petition from a Seattle resident with ties to the Stehekin area, Jonathan Rosenblum.

Rosenblum thought the name Coon Lake sounded racist. "This was a wrong that needed to be corrected," he told David Hyde onKUOW's The Record last month.

Fifty state senators then sent a letter to Washington's U.S. senators asking them to push for the change.

State Sen. Pramila Jayapal, who represents Rosenblum's district, led that effort.

“Names matter. They matter a lot, because they say something to a person immediately about whether that person is welcomed or not, how that person is seen,” she told Hyde on Friday.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Jonathan Rosenblum fought to change the controversial lake name in Washington.", "fid": "120742", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201509/20150916-howardlake.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Gil Aegerter"}]]The Park Service said that when it made the 2009 recommendation, it incorrectly relied on secondary source material that didn't properly portray Wilson Howard's connection to the area.

"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 Park Service said a new recommendation will be made soon to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

Jayapal said the action is especially notable as the Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2016.

“We know that the National Park Service and the national parks, which are such an amazing treasure for so many, are not being utilized enough by communities of color,” she said. “When you go to a lake and you see a name that is clearly derogatory that no one would ever say to your face, you don’t want to go there.”

What about other names in Washington state that some find offensive – Squaw Bay on Shaw Island in the San Juans or the mountain called Chinamans Hat east of Ellensburg?

“I think that we’re behind the times. Not all of these names have gone through this fairly laborious process,” said Jayapal, who added that she would push for a statewide inventory.

“People do see the need to change these names and I have some hope that this is not a partisan issue. This is a 21st-century America issue."

On Friday, the state Committee on Geographic Names reviewed a request to change Squaw Bay's name to Sq’emenen Bay -- the Lummi name for Shaw Island.

The next step is for the committee to give the proposal a final review next May. Then it would forward a recommendation to the state Board on Geographic Names for final adoption.

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