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Budget cuts make Washington only state without board to decide place names

The Washington Board on Geographic Names has not just been slashed from the budget, but written out of existence in Olympia, making the Evergreen State the only one without such a body. Who will keep our maps from chaos now?
Mount Rainier

Mount Rainier Walter Siegmund / Wikimedia Commons

The cutting has been nasty in Olympia. Tough times, but some cuts are simply hard to comprehend because they don't result in much, if any, savings.

Here's one shocker that's gone under the radar: the elimination of the Washington State Board on Geographic Names. Washington now becomes the only state in the union without a local names board or naming authority.

The Names Board are the folks who recently approved the milestone designation of the Salish Sea and who have presided on place-name controversies like the oft-proposed renaming Mount Rainier. The bill passed in Olympia and signed by governor Christine Gregoire terminates the board, which had previously lost its funding but was continuing to do its work on a volunteer basis.

The bill slashed all manner of boards and commissions (including the Oil Spill Advisory Council — is that great timing or what?). The Names Board had operated under the auspices of the Department of Natural Resources (the board website has not yet been taken down) and met about twice a year to hear new proposals and settle controversies.

The board consisted of historians, librarians, scholars, and other citizens who helped to keep Washington's geography straight. They provided local oversight over the names that appear on state maps and charts. Citizens could nominate names of unnamed places, or name changes, and the board would review them.

The resulting discussions were wonderful windows onto our history and heritage, and the board's decisions literally could put a place on the map. They ensured that local input was considered before being passed on for review in Washington, DC by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names which has control over the database that guides the making of national maps, charts, globes, etc. State law required board approval before a name could appear on maps.

There are good reasons for doing this, including public safety. It is a good thing to have everyone working off the same charts or maps, especially emergency responders. The state board's job was to help keep everyone on the same page. This lack of oversight concerns Caleb Maki, the DNR staffer who facilitated the board, and was proud to keep it going even without a budget.

Maki continues to hang on to the board's files and communicate with the U.S. Board, which will consider pending Washington name proposals. However, without local review or priority, names working their way along at the national level might become stalled, and the national decision-makers will be operating without studied local input.

It's worth pointing out that the Salish Sea designation — which gained international headlines, pleased tribes and scientists, and was a model of cross-border cooperation — would never have happened without the state board's leadership in reviewing the application and approving it in Washington state. Without the state board's sanction, neither the U.S., British Columbia nor Canada would have acted. As it was, a major geographic feature was added to the map because the concept was rigorously vetted and gained widespread support at the state level.

So, if Washington no longer has a gatekeeper for its place names, what does that mean? Who gets to put, or remove, names from the land? Are we now the wild frontier when it comes to naming?

Maki says yes, we might be "in the naming Wild West." There is no state law prohibiting anyone from applying their own name to anything. This could be a boon for developers, planners, or corporations who want to reshape what we call, and the way we think about, landscapes or physical features. The problem isn't bad names necessarily but the discrepancies that creep in over time between what the map says and what locals say: You call it Mount Rainier, I say Mount Tahoma, local Indians might call it "Ti'Swaq."

The Rainier debate is like the volcano, quietly active. Some Native Americans, including some of the Puyallup tribe, are newly pushing to re-designate the mountain Ti'Swaq, "to rightfully reclaim and restore the Creator (God) given names to the holy and sacred sites, starting with what is now known as Mount Rainier," according to the advocates' website. The history of debate over the name of the peak is long, fascinating, and highly controversial.

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Posted Tue, Jun 8, 7:30 a.m. Inappropriate

Good. The Washington State Board on Geographic Names was just one more state agency that had been co-opted to push tribal agendas.


Posted Tue, Jun 8, 8:18 a.m. Inappropriate

BlueLight: What's your evidence for that? Surely not Salish Sea, a concept conceived and pushed by a white scientist. Surely not the Rainier controversy, where the board stood fast for keeping the name despite efforts to change it to an Indian one.

Posted Tue, Jun 8, 9:24 a.m. Inappropriate

The effort to rename geographies to tribal name is part of a broader "reindigenizing" effort. While not "geographic", our state's ferry system has - almost completely - gone native.



Posted Tue, Jun 8, 11:10 a.m. Inappropriate

BlueLight - Wow. Are you new to the area? Washington State Ferries inherited its Native named fleet when it took control of Black Ball in 1951. And today it continues a marketing scheme started by the Black Ball Line of naming local vessels with names that sounded local. The Kalakala was named the Peralta until it was bought and rebuilt for use here. They did the same when they bought the Lake Tahoe and rebranded it Illahee. The last non-Native named ship was the Evergreen State in the '50's but its always been more a tradition that became policy and became a way to honor those who plied these waters in canoes for centuries. I think you're way off-base using the ferries and ship-naming as an example anyway. Care to cite anything else?


Posted Tue, Jun 8, 12:41 p.m. Inappropriate

Even if BlueLight's assertions were true, the question still remains — who is now to keep track of things in this state? Customary usage is fine for many purposes, but with the proliferation of maps in this digital age... I don't even want to think about the consequences of a lack of standards.

Posted Tue, Jun 8, 12:46 p.m. Inappropriate

An entity styled as "BlueLight" writes: "While not "geographic", our state's ferry system has - almost completely - gone native."

I assume that this will surprise you, but with few exceptions, the practice of giving ferries Indian names goes back to the WSF's predecessor, the privately run Black Ball Line, in the 1920s. When the state nationalized the ferry service in the 1950s, it continued the practice.

It's tremendously short sighted to disband this board. Establishing standardized weights, measures and descriptions is one of the core functions of government. At the very least the board should have continued on as a volunteer operation. It's scandalous that our wise solons in Olympia would deem something like this unnecessary, while finding plenty of resources for forcibly grouping school children into dozens of fanciful "racial" categories: http://www.thenewstribune.com/2010/06/06/1215034/racial-box-checking-not-easy-for.html We know we're near the end of civilization as we know it when the state can waste millions on phony projects like the fascist-tinged racial profiling of children, but can't even provide a twice-yearly per diem to a volunteer board that's performing a core duty of government. Washington continues to follow California over the cliff.


Posted Tue, Jun 8, 12:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Sorry the URL didn't stand out better



Posted Tue, Jun 8, 1:24 p.m. Inappropriate

This is sad and disconcerting news -- I hadn't realized that the Board was in such a precarious position. What can we as citizens do to fix this big mistake?


Posted Tue, Jun 8, 3:42 p.m. Inappropriate

Somehow the slaying of the name board doesn't surprise me a bit.

It is not a non sequitur to point out that Washington is already notorious as the most venomously anti-transit state in the U.S. (and quite possibly on the entire planet). Bellingham voted at the end of April to begin the destruction its already woefully inadequate bus system, and Tacoma's Pierce Transit will commence self-destruction with a 57-percent service cutback effective 1 January 2011.

Obviously -- here's the connection between the death of the name board and the methodical killing of what meager transit we were allowed -- a state without public transport has no need for intelligible maps either.

The rich have GPS; the rest of us are already lost forever.

Posted Tue, Jun 8, 3:56 p.m. Inappropriate

lorenbliss writes: "...Washington is already notorious as the most venomously anti-transit state in the U.S. (and quite possibly on the entire planet)."

I doubt if I'm alone in saying that that statement strains credulity.


Posted Tue, Jun 8, 4:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Well, we do have Tim Eyman and ourselves to thank for the transit cutbacks--once upon a time we had a way to pay for transit and road maintenance, too, but since we were not willing to pay for it it's not surprising that it's getting cut to ribbons.

And apparently there's no one to stop Tim Eyman from renaming Seattle any way he wants to. I hope no one tells him!

Posted Tue, Jun 8, 4:24 p.m. Inappropriate

The BGN never had authority over the naming of incorporated places, so Seattle will remain Seattle until the mayor and city council decide otherwise — which is even less likelier to happen than Mt. Rainier becoming Ti'Swaq.

Posted Tue, Jun 8, 8:15 p.m. Inappropriate

In response to Dbreneman: I covered public transport in one form or another from 1963 through 1986, and I have written about it -- sometimes in paid assignments, sometimes via unpaid commentaries (as here) -- ever since.

My work c.1963-1983 included reportorial beat assignments on five newspapers, the associate editorship of one of the nation's leading transport-industry journals and an indirect role (through its publisher) as a researcher for NYC Mayor John V. Lindsay's Public Transport Advisory Committee, for which the publication (Taxi Weekly) was honored by a mayoral commendation.

Hence I do know something of the subject -- including the fact that no other comparable urban area in the United States is plagued by anything remotely like the documented hostility toward mass transit repeatedly demonstrated by the voters of Pugetopolis: counting the recent debacle in Bellingham, where transit-haters spawned a rare (and perhaps locally unprecedented) 46 percent special-election turnout, a 42-year record in which seven of nine transit proposals have been rejected either by the voters or the legislators.

The result is that an area with nearly twice the population of Chicago suffers the oppression of a demonstrably inadequate transit system -- so wretched that even the region's most enthusiastic boosters admit it is four decades' behind time.

By way of contrast, note the recent mass transit victories in St. Louis and Phoenix, for which Google.

Note too the Eymarrhoids are only a small part of the Pugetopolis problem.

Post-election opinion research in Seattle and King County after the defeat of the second Forward Thrust transit measure revealed the anti-transit votes to be expressions of a xenophobic bigotry so malevolent the results of the studies were suppressed as potential incitements to riot.

The findings also imposed a 24-year moratorium (1970-1994) on all further efforts at regional transit development via the ballot box.

Effectively nothing has changed since then. Though Seattle voters have become marginally more pro-transit, their shift was still insufficient to save the 1995 and 2007 Sound Transit measures from xenophobic and racist defeats.

Now – despite the bold efforts of a few pro-transit Democrats in both houses of the legislature – anti-transit Democrats killed a last-ditch effort to preserve transit at present-day levels, and Bellingham and Whatcom County voters have actually opted for transit-system destruction.

Meanwhile the likelihood of a comparable anti-transit vote in Tacoma and Pierce County is so discouraging that Pierce Transit (the local transit authority) will probably not even waste the money necessary to put a sure-to-be-defeated service-preservation measure on the Fall 2010 ballot.

All of which reveals the truly breathtaking hypocrisy behind this state's claim of environmental enlightenment and liberal politics: adequate mass transit means both environmental sanity and socioeconomic justice.

For a people to boast of "evergreen" consciousness and “progressive” values while simultaneously opposing public transport – especially opposing it for so long with such undeniable bigotry and class-war hatefulness – is to practice the same kind of hypocritical deception made infamous by native-son Ted Bundy, who disguised himself as a crisis-line humanitarian even as he bolstered his body-count.

Posted Wed, Jun 9, 7:42 a.m. Inappropriate

L Bliss,

The money we're wasting on Sound Transit alone discredits your argument.

Posted Wed, Jun 9, 7:50 a.m. Inappropriate

Lorenbliss provides a good example of why the press has lost credibility with much of the American public.


Posted Wed, Jun 9, 9:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Its a terrible shame, as the Board members were not paid, and over time they made thoughtful and informed decisions that corected some egregious errors. When federal agencies were attempting to name new Mt. St. Helens features after the volcanic eruption of 1980, the Board stepped in, took public comment and adopted names like Harry's Ridge. John McClelland and Bill Spiedel were founts of Washington history knowledge and served on the Board. Emmett Oliver helped correct corrupted Indian place names with his tribal linguistic knowledge. A particular name change that I remember was when the Board corrected the name "Nigger Rock" in the middle of the Columbia River. There were other abominations and they will continue, when there are no controls.
The State needs to act to reestablish the Board and the Governor should be ashamed that she signed the bill.

Posted Wed, Jun 9, 3 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm thinking that if cost is the driver on eliminating the Geographic Names Board they could become self supporting by selling naming rights to geographic places. As a nod to history we could limit changing names of existing places but as new locales are found or created the Board and State could cash in. The new Kemper Freeway through Bellevue, the BP waterfront tunnel(not too deep this time) and maybe even virtual places like the P-I globe or the glacially relocated town of Russell Index.


Posted Sun, Jun 13, 11:45 a.m. Inappropriate

"Some Native Americans, including some of the Puyallup tribe, are newly pushing to re-designate the mountain Ti'Swaq, "to rightfully reclaim and restore the Creator (God) given names to the holy and sacred sites, starting with what is now known as Mount Rainier,' "

It would be interesting to know what constituted a proper and democratic naming board for the tribe back in the day. Claiming God as the author sidesteps the question of just what authority the tribe itself had to name the mountain in perpetuity. I am guessing that it was named by a slave-owning non-elected despot. We should consider their petition fairly and circumspectly.


Posted Mon, Oct 17, 3:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you Crosscut for shedding light on this effort, it is very much appreciated. The doubts and concerns are the so called, "logs" for my fire to restore the Native American Names to the sacred places of this state.
I'd seen the critics write a year ago, statements similar to Benjamin Lukoff's, that this effort has a snowballs chance in hell to succeed, because there was no WA State Board of Geographic Names. So after my little get together, Day of 1000 Drums, took care of that, and within a years time, got my little bill passed and signed into law last May 16th 2011, to Re establish the Board, and this time to include Tribal members.
So, in closing, just thankful for this site, and the dialouge it's created, the good and negative, it's all good.

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