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Mt. Rainier’s New Name

Posted by Johnine Larsen on August 31, 2015
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Goodbye, Mount McKinley. Hello, Denali!

President Obama restored the traditional name of Alaska’s highest peak last weekend, in a move that has Alaskans cheering and a few Ohioans pouting.

The name change honors the region’s native population. The indigenous Athabascan people called the mountain Denali, which means “the high one,” but it gained McKinley’s name in 1896. As noted by Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior and former REI CEO, “President McKinley never visited, nor did he have any significant historical connection to, the mountain or to Alaska.” Now, 109 years later, the mountain is once again known as Denali.

We’ve got a similar situation here in Seattle: our very own Mt. Rainier hasn’t always been Mt. Rainier.

Native Americans called it Tacoma. Or Tahoma. Or Tacobah. Native Americans didn’t have a written alphabet, and pronunciation varied between tribes, so there’s no “right” way to spell it—but you get the idea.

There are two theories about the traditional name’s meaning:

  • co means water in the Lushootseed language, so Tacoma means “the mother of all waters. As a member of the Puyallup tribe put it, “The Earth is our mother and Tahoma gives us drink, gives white water to the land.”
  • ta means “larger” in Lushootseed, and Kobah is the Lushootseed name for what we call Mount Baker, so Takobah means “higher than Kobah.” That one’s less poetic.

The Native American name stuck around a long time. Until 1792, when Captain George Vancouver named it after his friend, Rear Admiral Peter Rainier. Then the mountain shared both names for a while. People in Tacoma favored the name Mt. Tacoma, of course, but you could call it either Rainier or Tacoma and no one would get confused. In 1890, though, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names made the Rainier name official, and from then on, we’ve known it Mt. Rainier.

Our mountain did get another name overhaul for three days in 2014. The Washington State Senate temporarily renamed the mountain Mount Seattle Seahwaks from January 31, 2014 to midnight on February 3, 2014.

In the wake of Denali’s name change, this is a time to look at our own beloved mountain. Is Mt. Rainier’s name up next? Which name would you choose? Let us know as a comment!

  • Tahoma, Tahoma, Tacobeh, etc.
  • Mt. Rainier
  • Mt. Seattle Seahawks
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