Podcast | Why the ancient stories of Mount Rainier matter now

Peter Rainier never set foot on this continent. Some tribal members suggest giving a more fitting name for Washington’s tallest peak.

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View of Mount Rainier

The state's largest mountain has many names besides Mount Rainier. (Drew Payne via Getty)

For the very first episode of Crosscut Escapes, we told a story about a mountain. Not just any mountain — the mountain. You know the one. It’s the biggest in the state, the one you can see from Seattle, Tacoma, Yakima and sometimes even farther away.

You also know the name. It’s on beer cans, baseball stadiums, plumbing companies, street signs and beaches. But that name you know so well is not what everyone calls it. In fact, the mountain has many names, given to it by the many different peoples who were here before there was a Washington, and who are still here.

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Peter Rainier, an 18th century admiral in the British Navy for whom the mountain would eventually be named, never even saw the peak. The Indigenous communities who have thrived here for millennia have connections that run far deeper.

For the final episode of Season 2 of Crosscut Escapes, we take a step back and listen to some of the people who have the most to say about this mountain — and what it would mean to change its name. 

Crosscut video producer Beatriz Costa Lima was the reporter for this episode. The video she produced on the topic was part of Crosscut’s Deeply Rooted series about environmental justice in Washington.


Transcripts for Crosscut Escapes are the product of a third-party service. The audio stands as the official record for the reporting in this series.

[00:00:00] Anonymous: Crosscut Escapes is sponsored by John S. Adams, CFP, and UBS.

[00:00:10] Brandon Reynon: I think in English, uh, especially when you have the explorers that first come, they named things after important people, or in this instance, a best friend, uh, on another continent. Whereas here with our language, every place name has a significance.

[00:00:29] Hanford McCloud: These names go back thousands of years. And that meaning is so strong that when you say it, you can feel that, that presence of the name and then the meaning behind it. Don't forget the water.

[00:00:41] Chay Squally: Don't forget the water.

[00:00:43] Billy Frank Sr.: Təqʷuʔmaʔ, don't forget the water. Take it along with us.

[00:01:05] Ted Alvarez: Hey there, listeners. Welcome to Crosscut Escapes. I'm your host, Ted Alvarez. For our very first episode, way back in Season One, we told a story about a mountain. Not just any mountain, the mountain. You know the one I'm talking about. The biggest one in the state, the one you can see hulking on the horizon from Seattle, Tacoma, Yakima, sometimes even farther away.

You know the name. It's famous. It's on beer cans, baseball stadiums, plumbing companies, street signs, beaches.

You've noticed I'm not saying that name, because that name, the one you know so well, well, that's not what everyone calls it. In fact, it has many names given to it by the many different peoples who were here before there was a Washington and who are still here. For this episode, the final one of this season of Crosscut Escapes, I'm going to take a step back and listen.

This time, I'm not listening for birds or a waterfall or the sound of a mountain singing. I'm listening to the people who have the most to say about this mountain because their history goes back further than anyone else’s. The first thing to know is that to many of those people, the mountain isn't even really an it. It’s a she.

[00:02:18] Brandon Reynon: In our creation stories, she is the center of all of the stories. So she is the giver of water. She's a giver of life.

[00:02:26] Ted Alvarez: This is Brandon Reynon, Historic Preservation Officer for the Puyallup Tribe of Indians. He and everyone else you'll hear from this episode spoke earlier this year with Beatriz Costa Lima, a video producer for Crosscut.

[00:02:38] Hanford McCloud: We call her ‘she’ because she gives us life.

[00:02:40] Ted Alvarez: And this is Hanford McCloud, a member of the Nisqually Tribe.

[00:02:43] Hanford McCloud: So my name is Hweqwidi Hanford McCloud. I am the Sixth Councilmember for the Nisqually Indian Tribe. Uh, and, and those are the stories that I recall, especially coming from, you know, my mom and my aunties and grandma, and, you know, and, and you could hear that because the women would really, really tell you a lot of the stories.

And when you say, I say stories, it's more of a legend because those names represent a place in time that our people had come to.

[00:03:15] Ted Alvarez: That story, the origin story of the mountain, is one built in pain and loss and the survival of the people of the mountains, rivers and sea around her depended on the gifts that grew out of the traumatic events of her life.

It's even woven into many of her names. One of those names, Təqʷuʔmaʔ,  translates to “don't forget the water” and refers to the legend of her journey from the Olympics to the Cascades.

[00:03:39] Hanford McCloud: But she came from the Olympics and as she come across this prairie here, she come across this land, she, she dropped her medicine. And she took her medicine from that Olympics area over there by Makah and Neah Bay and Quinault.

And she was mad because you know, her sister, Mount St. Helens, had an, had an affair with her husband, Mount Adams. And so she picked up all her medicine and came across Hamma Hamma and these areas right here. And that's how you get the valley right here from the water, her dragging kind of across the way and saddened with what had happened and, and, and dropping these medicines.

And so, you know, you can see that, uh, I would hear that story from the, over there on the west coast of how, you know, the medicine is no longer over there. It's all here.

[00:04:24] Ted Alvarez: Like any good story, it changes in the telling and only gets richer as perspectives are added and more details surface. Sometimes the mountain’s husband is Mount Adams.

Sometimes it's Mount Olympus. These shifting characters with deep emotions and backstories, they might seem pretty different from the hard numbers often use to describe the mountain: 14,411 feet tall, 25 major glaciers. But they flesh out the why of the mountain and the whole of the Northwest in ways that raw facts often can’t.

Here's another version, this time from Hanford McCloud's mother, Joyce McCloud. She's the Culture Director for the Nisqually Tribe.

[00:05:01] Joyce McCloud: She was married to Mount Olympus, but Mount Olympus fell in love with another mountain. And she was really sad. She was gonna leave and come over here to the other mountains, the Cascades.

So she gathered up everything that she needed to survive in the Cascades. She gathered up all the huckleberries and all the medicines that you only see in the Cascades. She headed out and she was crying. And as she was crying, she was dragging all her bag, baggage that she had with her. And then she stopped.

She stopped in the middle of what is now called Puget Sound. And she turned around and she goes, “Təqʷuʔmaʔ,” she told her son, “Təqʷuʔmaʔ, don't forget the water.” So he grabbed the water from the mountains and then they headed out, headed towards the Cascades. And as she went along, she created all of the rivers.

The Nisqually River, the Puyallup River, all the rivers connected to Təqʷuʔmaʔ. And that is why today you cannot go over to the Olympics and find the mountain huckleberries because Təqʷuʔmaʔ took them all with her. And that's where they grow. They're only up by Mount Rainier. Yeah.

[00:06:26] Ted Alvarez: Did you hear that? Mount Rainier. The name you probably know best. The one on all the official maps, the one on the beer cans, the one you hashtag on Instagram after you visit or climb. That's the name with a ton of colonial baggage.

This is a conversation that shows up time and again in the Pacific Northwest and with good reason. As with so many other places in the U.S., the names we still use for prominent features of the landscape came from white explorers or settlers who trekked in from somewhere else and declared it theirs.

Mount Whitney, for instance, the tallest mountain in California, as well as in the lower 48, is named after Josiah Whitney, a Harvard professor who led a U.S. Geological Survey team through the region in 1864. Colorado's tallest peak, Mount Elbert, was named after the 19th century governor of what was then a U.S. territory, allegedly to honor a deal he struck with the Ute Tribe that would open up millions of acres of land in the region to mining and railroad development.

Mount Olympus and Mount Adams. Those are also colonial names, chosen by a British Explorer and an American settler, respectively. And the name Rainier? It first showed up here because of George Vancouver, an officer in the British Navy who led an expedition through Coast Salish waters in 1792.

Here's Brandon again from the Puyallup Tribe.

[00:07:48] Brandon Reynon: How we even got the name Rainier is quite interesting. Rainier is an Admiral in the British Navy in the 1790s, at the same time and around the same time as the American Revolution. And so you have Vancouver arrive, he sees, uh, he sees the peak. He sees this beautiful mountain and names after his best friend.

Well, that name was kind of lost. That name kind of went away. Wasn't really accepted. And the local settlers called it Mount Tacoma for the longest time. But then you have around the, uh, late 1800s, hundreds going into the early 1900s, this rivalry that developed between Seattle and Tacoma.

What I call the crooks of Seattle versus the crooks of Tacoma, uh, the crooks of Seattle couldn't stand the fact that you would have this mountain named after their rival city. And so they worked with the U.S. Board of Geographic Names. And ended up bribing them with a car, a train car full of beer, and persuaded them to adopt the name Rainier, which was originally given by this wonderful explorer, Vancouver.

And so that's how we got the name Rainier to begin with.

[00:09:06] Ted Alvarez: Well, that part about the beer, that might've been a rumor. It's pretty hard to verify. But regardless, the controversy over the name was real. And it's continued to some degree ever since.

[00:09:17] Amber Sterud Hayward: Captain Vancouver who came to this area and explored it, uh, named it after his friend whose last name was Rainier, who never stepped foot on this continent.

Um, so I think that is a bother to a lot of people.

[00:09:31] Ted Alvarez: This is Amber Sterud Hayward, Director of the Puyallup Tribal Language Program, which focuses on revitalizing one of the first languages of the region, Lushootseed, and its many dialects.

[00:09:41] Amber Sterud Hayward: haʔł sləx̌il, Amber Sterud Hayward tsi dsdaʔ. spuyaləpabš čəd. ʔəsłałlil čəd ʔal ti caləłali ʔal ti swatxʷixʷtxʷəd ʔə ti spuyaləpabš. ƛ’uyayus čəd txʷəl ti spuyaləpabš ʔal ti txʷəlšucidadiʔ.

Good day. My name is Amber Sterud Hayward, and I'm a Puyallup tribal member. I live in Tacoma on the Puyallup Reservation. And I work for the Puyallup Tribe in our language department.  

[00:10:05] Ted Alvarez: So to Amber and many others, Mount Rainier is a strange choice. Rainier never even saw this mountain. He had no connection to it. The people who were here long before he or Captain Vancouver were even born, well, they did.

[00:10:19] Amber Sterud Hayward: Not recognizing the Lushootseed name or Native name, um, that the people who've lived here since the beginning of time referenced, uh, it makes a lot of sense to me why, why people would be upset and would like to change the name.

[00:10:33] Ted Alvarez: So this desire to change the name of Mount Rainier, it's been around for a long time, probably ever since the name was officially chosen. But in recent years, as our nation reconsiders the uglier chapters of its past, momentum has been building.

[00:10:46] Hanford McCloud: No, there's been a, there's been a push to change names. I know there's always been a discussion around what it would represent to, to, um, not rename, but name the places that had the names, you know.

[00:11:00] Ted Alvarez: And the many names the mountain has had and still has, well, those names are not the names of white guys from the other side of the world.

They were born right here in a language that grew literally out of the earth of this specific special place.

[00:11:13] Amber Sterud Hayward: Uh, for our people, we speak Lushootseed and our dialect is called txʷəlšucid. And we were told that txʷəlšucid comes from the land. So that's why it's very important that our names carry on each of those locations.

There's a lot of times where the name, something specific happened in that location, um, and that's why a name was put on, on this particular place.

When we go to the mountains, we're listening for Lushootseed. You can absolutely hear it everywhere. You can hear the animals speaking Lushootseed. You can hear the water speaking Lushootseed.

So the word for river is stuləkʷ. So when you're listening to the river, it’s stuləkʷ, stuləkʷ, stuləkʷ, stuləkʷ, stuləkʷ, stuləkʷ, stuləkʷ. Um, you hear the birds, k’aʔk’aʔ, k’aʔk’aʔ. There's other birds that say k’ʷədiicut, k’ʷədiicut. So, so we're, we're listening for that Lushootseed, right. It's in the land.

[00:12:16] Brandon Reynon: The meanings are entwined with the earth. And so, um, the significance goes beyond just some person, some arbitrary person, it's more of a, a physical description. So it shows how connected we are to the earth.

When you stick a name on something, especially a person's name, it is. It’s staking a claim. It’s staking a claim on something that's not yours.

It never has been yours. And yet here you are, you are coming in and putting this name on it. It is disrespectful, um, but it also shows the lack of connection that you have with, uh, with the environment that you live in.

[00:12:57] Chay Squally: English is its own mindset. And in the language, it's our ancestors’ worldview.

[00:13:06] Ted Alvarez: This is Chay Squally, Chairwoman of the Nisqually Parks Commission and Councilmember for the Nisqually Tribe.

[00:13:11] Chay Squally: So it's how we honor the first people of this land. It's more than a name change, it's about recognition, acknowledging, internalizing, being accountable, reciprocating and demonstrating.

[00:13:28] Amber Sterud Hayward: I think renaming the mountain is one step toward some sort of solidarity. And acknowledgement toward the indigenous people that live in Washington state. Absolutely. It also allows us and helps us to revitalize our language as well. So when we getting these Indian names back out in our community, um, it's very helpful to our identity and to our people.

And it allows the people who are currently living here to know that there were people here before they were here.

[00:14:01] Ted Alvarez: These days, there's a little bit more of that knowledge spreading into mainstream culture here in the Northwest, but there's a long way still to go. And restoring the name of the mountain to something close to its original, lots of people can get behind that idea. Lots of people have over the years. But it's a bit more complex than it might seem at first. More on that after the break.

[00:14:37] Anonymous: The Arbor Group at UBS has a straightforward mission. To help you make the world a better place. Through personal financial planning and sustainable investment management, the Arbor Group works with each of their clients to pursue that client's specific goals. Learn more by visiting ubs.com/team/thearborgroup.

[00:15:04] Ted Alvarez: There is some precedence for changing the colonial name of a mountain back to the one it was given by its first neighbors. In Alaska, for instance, the highest mountain in North America was renamed Denali by the federal government in 2015.

[00:15:17] Anonymous: President Obama will make history today in Alaska, where he will rename the country's tallest peak.

The more than 20,000-foot-tall Mount McKinley will once again be known by its Native American name, Denali.

[00:15:27] Ted Alvarez: But the effort to swap out the name of former president William McKinley, a man who never visited the mountain or Alaska, took 40 years.

[00:15:35] Anonymous: The push to change the name back to Denali has been in the works since 1975?

Yes. Yeah. The Alaska congressional…

[00:15:44] Ted Alvarez: Any effort to rename Mount Rainier will face hurdles of its own, beginning with what to call it in the first place.

[00:15:50] Amber Sterud Hayward: We don't always choose one name for things. I feel like in English, it’s this, this is one thing and this one word, and that's what we're going to call it. Um, in our language, we have multiple ways to say one thing.

Um, in the Lushootseed area, we referenced our mountain as təqʷuʔbəd, təqʷuʔmaʔ, təqʷuʔbəʔ, multiple names. For the Puyallup dialect, for me, audibly hearing, I've heard our people say it three different ways, within our own language, within our own tribe. Um, and then it just keeps going and going with, um, all of the different tribes in the Lushootseed country.

And again, you know, spreading, um, across the Washington state.

[00:16:37] Chay Squally: There must be a lot of different names for the mountain because as far as, uh, anyone can see it, the tribes, they all use it.

[00:16:47] Amber Sterud Hayward: And so for us to try to decide and all agree on one name, um, could potentially be hard or it might be easy. I don't, I don't know.

[00:16:57] Brandon Reynon: But I think the important thing is to rename it, to get, get that name Rainier stripped from our sacred lands.

[00:17:05] Ted Alvarez: So one major difference between Denali and Rainier is that there was basically already one agreed upon original name for the Alaskan peak. Another big difference: Rainier is now such a big brand that reversing it might seem impossible.

[00:17:18] Brandon Reynon: You know, we have Rainier beer, we have the Tacoma Rainiers, we have this icon, and everyone knows it as Rainier, so why change it, you know? And it's like, you don't understand the connection that we as tribal folks have, uh, to this place. Um, while your, your attraction and your, your, uh, connection to the, to the mountain is strictly due to marketing.

Ours is strictly due to culture.

[00:17:46] Chay Squally: Um, for me personally, it is just somewhere where we can gather our medicine and pretty much, um, bring back our ancestral ways.

[00:17:58] Ted Alvarez: Some people, like Chay Squally and Hanford McCloud, they hope that restoring the mountain's name could also help restore other connections, real and tangible things, like historic access to her natural resources.

[00:18:10] Chay Squally: A lot of tribes use this mountain for their sustainability. They go up there and gather, they do their stuff. We all use the mountain.

[00:18:20] Hanford McCloud: The mountain has a lot of, a lot of that medicine, a lot of that, uh, uh, material that we use for our clothing, for our houses and for our canoes. So you get, you get different materials from, from down here in the valley of, of the river and the sea to up above in the mountain. You know, and, uh, um, yellow cedar, the wood is different up there.

It's more dense and harder. So our people use yellow cedar for such housing and building materials. If it was your canoe and you know, things like that, that, and when you get up high, you got bear grass, you got this, you know, we call it princess pine, just, just to name a couple that we have, that we go up and gather every, every spring.

It is a treaty right of ours to, to the right, to gather and hunt and our usual and accustomed fishing stations, villages, you know, and that's in the treaty. And so to, to, you know, look at Mount Rainier, how they've taken it and turned it into this recreational kind of a setting, but it still is a treaty resource to our people. And it always has been.

And I have been fighting for the last 25 years to get rights, to actually gather the bark and the grass and the teas and the roots. And so we've put together a list…

[00:19:47] Ted Alvarez: It should be clear by now that the name of the mountain, whatever it becomes, is intertwined with what it represents. Restoring the name would mean a lot of things to many different people. Perhaps most importantly, it could go some distance toward healing old, grievous wounds that persist this day.

[00:20:03] Chay Squally: We know what our elders went through and what our ancestors went through.

And we all have intergenerational trauma and it does hurt trying to, um, get past that. And language is a way to not only revitalize ourselves and our people. And, um, but it's, it's just a way of healing.

[00:20:37] Brandon Reynon: In the late 1800s, early 1900s, uh, our tribe, but tribes throughout the country. Uh, faced the boarding school massacre is what I call it.

[00:20:48] Anonymous: For more than 150 years, the U.S. government sought to forcibly assimilate Native American children as the country expanded into their land. Hundreds of government-funded boarding schools were set up all over the country.

[00:21:00] Brandon Reynon: Here's where our culture, what was left of our culture that survived the arrival of settlers was, was beaten, raped, and murdered out of us in the boarding schools.

[00:21:10] Anonymous: There, tribes were separated, Native American traditions were erased. And survivors of those schools say they were physically, emotionally and sexually abused.

Just yesterday, Secretary of Interior, Deb Haaland, announced a new federal initiative that will, quote, uncover the truth and the lasting consequences of these schools.

[00:21:30] Chay Squally: The elders in boarding schools, they, they were, they went through so much, they were not allowed to use their language. And a lot of elders wouldn't teach it because they, they thought it was bad.

It was ingrained into them that it's, it's a bad thing and it shouldn't be carried on.

[00:21:50] Brandon Reynon: Our ancestors persevered, they endured, they fought tooth and nail to hold onto the culture and to the language.

[00:22:00] Chay Squally: I'm happy that our language survived and it's still here. It's still alive.

[00:22:07] Brandon Reynon: And by changing the name, I think we begin the process of saying, Hey, you know, you failed. We never ceased to exist. Even at your best efforts, we survived. We endured. We stand here today, strong. Uh, we stand here, speaking our language, uh, celebrating our culture on a daily basis. Uh, and we're not going anywhere.

[00:22:39] Hanford McCloud: I was always told the seventh and eighth generation of the treaty signers of 1855 are going to heal from this. And changing and bringing those names back is what that healing factor is. It's not just for us as human beings, it's for the Mother Earth that we're on. It's the fact that, you know, we're just, again, little worker ants here taking care of this for the next generation.

Not for us to, you know, uh, conquer and rule all, is how I look at it, so.

[00:23:13] Ted Alvarez: If we change the name of Mount Rainier, the aftershocks have the potential to ripple across the Pacific Northwest and beyond. They're likely to be felt by everyone, Native and non-Native. It could change the way we think about the land, the way we behave when we visit the mountain, what we choose to value when we're there and where we go in the future.

And maybe that long dead friend of a colonizer, the one who never set foot on the mountain? Well, his name might be the one that's forgotten. Except maybe when you see it on an old can of beer.

[00:23:45] Amber Sterud Hayward: I did not grow up speaking Lushootseed. I'm an adult learner of my language. And the work that I personally put into learning my ancestral language, my kids, my three children get to live in a world where they didn't know that Lushootseed didn't exist. So the world that they have been born into, all they have heard is Lushootseed.

And so for the future of the mountain to have a name change, I would love for my kids to not remember that it was called Mount Rainier. To, to live in a world where that has always been the name for them, because that's the name that we use for the mountain and for other people, for them not to have to code switch, and go back and forth, depending on who they're talking to. I would love that they would just completely forget that name.

[00:24:57] Ted Alvarez: That's it for this week's episode. And for Season Two of Crosscut Escapes. Thanks so much for joining us. This episode was produced by me, Ted Alvarez, and Sara Bernard. Our executive producer is Mark Baumgarten. Our theme music is by the Explorist. Huge thanks to Crosscut video producer Beatriz Costa Lima, who reported this story, as well as to all the members of the Puyallup and Nisqually tribes she talked to. We'll put a link to Beatriz’s video about the mountain and its names on the episode page.

You can subscribe to Crosscut Escapes on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you listen. For more on Crosscut Escapes, go to crosscut.com/escapes. And if you like the show, please review us. It helps other people find us.

Crosscut Escapes is a product of Cascade Public Media. I'm Ted Alvarez. Thanks so much for listening.

About the Hosts

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez is formerly an editor at Crosscut and KCTS 9 focused on science and the environment.