There's no such thing as a blank slate. Our studies of history, ecology, anthropology, geology, evolution, etc. all teach us that there is a there everywhere that precedes us. But in places like the West, and still more so in the last frontier regions of the Pacific Northwest that were settled so late, very little seems fixed. Despite 10,000 plus years of human habitation, pioneers tried to wipe the slate clean of indigenous peoples and old-growth forests to build the New Jerusalem, and cities like Seattle and Portland and Vancouver emerged.
But still, there is restlessness, a sense our regional identity is not fixed, that the borders and boundaries so lately settled may have been based on old paradigms.
Once we were the Oregon Territory and stretched to Wyoming and Montana. States were carved out, British colonies and provinces too. Lines were drawn. Oregon celebrates its sesquicentennial of statehood this month, a venerable age for a region that became synonymous with the promise of the frontier. The age of empires — British, American, Russian, Spanish — competing for supremacy has largely passed, though it is being replayed in the melting Arctic, which could have trickle down effects on the Northwest in terms of economic opportunities opened by resource and territorial claims. Those Russians Alaska governor Sarah Palin can see from her porch in Wasilla? They planted a flag on the sea bottom at the North Pole in 2007, setting off a new round of jockeying in a warmer world. After 400 years, the Northwest Passage is still in play.
The border between Washington and British Columbia was finally fixed by the sweep of Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany's pen in 1872, but it did not resolve issues that are fluid, or were unknown at the time. His stroke may have made political or strategic sense, but does it make sense in terms of economics in a globalized, or even localized, world? Does it have anything to do with managing a bio-region? Did it take into account the sensibilities and traditions of the indigenous inhabitants? As the sweep and power of empires has shifted, the old blueprints are being reconsidered.
In this and upcoming stories, I will be exploring aspects of regional identity and concepts that are currently in play in Northwest culture and politics, including notions ranging from Ecotopia and Cascadia to Pugetopolis and the Salish Sea. These ideas sprout from attempts to consider new regional iterations and they form a yeasty part of Northwest debate and discussion, touching on economic development, sustainability, the centralization of power, the role of ecosystems, and the limits of culture and identity. All suggest that while we're not a blank slate, the people of the Northwest aren't yet finished with conceiving it, that that regionalism is dynamic and ongoing.
One manifestation of restlessness and rethinking is the quiet movement to rename of inland salt waters of the Pacific Northwest. While the people of the Puget Sound region are stewing over how to "save" the Sound and its life forms from massive and ongoing pollution, the terms of the conceptual game may be about to change.
While Puget Sound has a fairly fixed identity — the deep salt water cul de sac is something you can easily point to on a map — it is connected to a larger ecosystem. The issues of Puget Sound are not limited to it, in other words. The Sound lies within the boundaries of Washington state, but it cannot be saved without understanding its connection to a greater system.
Retired Western Washington University professor Bert Webber, a marine ecologist, has long been arguing that the inland sea of which Puget Sound is a part needs to be recognized with its own name. In May 2009, the Washington State Board of Geographic Names will take up whether or not to formally consider Webber's proposal to name this inland waterway the Salish Sea. It's Webber's idea, but not exactly new: he first proposed the name to the board in the 1980s, but they declined for various reasons to consider it at that time, among them that there were no "solid reasons" to do so. Webber was the only one pushing for it.
Webber's Salish Sea is aborder buster: it encompasses the waters roughly from Desolation Sound south to Georgia Strait and the Gulf Islands in British Columbia to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound in Washington. The Salish Sea wouldn't replace any existing name but rather act as an overlay on what Webber describes as an unnamed "ecological entity," the Puget Sound-Georgia Basin ecosystem.
It's an area with distinct differences from surrounding waters. Its salinity levels, the species that inhabit it, even the mix of trees on its shores contrast with those of the open ocean or more northern shores. It's a sea rimmed by Douglas fir, not Sitka spruce, fed by the fresh waters of the Fraser River and rivers that end in "ish" (Skokomish, Duwamish, Samish, Snohomish...), as well as home to the emblematic and threatened indicator Orcas of J, K and L pods.
While the sea is described ecologically, the renaming also has political purpose and implications. As Webber writes in his proposal to the Washington board, "One of the strongest arguments for naming our inland sea is to bring focus to the challenge of managing its rich resources so that human impact does not destroy those things we value." The Salish Sea helps promote "trans-boundary" awareness between the U.S. and Canada. This larger view is often left out of Seattle and Olympia political discussions of cleaning up Puget Sound, which cannot be cleansed or managed without Canadian cooperation, especially since the Fraser is the Sound's major contributor of fresh water, according to Webber. Webber himself has studied marine life and issues on both sides of the border. He grew up in Canada and lives in Bellingham, a town where Americans are comfortable flying the Maple Leaf flag.
Twenty years ago, Webber was still ahead of his time in getting the ecosystem recognized, but in the years since he has smartly gained some allies for his concept. First among these are regional Indian tribes — the coast Salish recognized in the name itself. The boundaries of the sea are part of the homeland of the Salish speaking tribes and they have adopted the term in their discussion of the region and their management of fisheries resources.
Their history and use of the Salish Sea also helps anchor the concept to history and existing culture: These waters are where these coastal peoples have lived, traded, hunted, fished, gathered, warred, and potlached for millennia, and the natives of this region are distinguishable culturally and lingustically from others nearby. The Salish Sea, for example, in Webber's conception extends part way down the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but not to Neah Bay on Washington's Northwestern-most tip, territory of the non-Salish Makah tribe who are more closely linked with the coastal Indian groups farther north. The tribes were often shaped by the ecosystem, and vice versa, and are indelibly linked to it.
Last spring, the Chemanius tribe on Vancouver Island proposed re-naming Georgie Strait the Salish Sea and the BC government said they would look into it. When I checked last fall with BC Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, they said the idea had not advanced and seemed reluctant to say much about it, as if mere question about the change was a political hot potato. Such proposals often are: the removal of old names can really stir the pot. The subject of changing Mount Rainier's name to Tahoma once caused great debate. Some Seattle citizens battled for years against changing Empire Way to Martin Luther King Way. Canadian press coverage indicates that changing the name of Georgia Strait could meet stiff opposition and some see it as mere symbolism and a waste of time.
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