The Federal Government Is Refusing to Change the Name of Washington State's Coon Lake
The thing about Coon Lake is that there are no raccoons in the area.
So says Jonathan Rosenblum, a union organizer formerly with Service Employees International Union, who dug into the history of the picturesque spot in Washington's North Cascade mountains. He found a much uglier explanation for Coon Lake — that it was christened as an insult to an early black prospector. Now, through an online petition, he's pressuring the federal government to make an official name change.
"Let's get the federal government to stop using a racist name," the petition reads. "Since 2007, the [National Park Service] has steadfastly opposed the change from Coon Lake to Howard Lake, and has effectively blocked action within the U.S. Department of the Interior."
According to Rosenblum, the water, originally known as Howard Lake, was named by Wilson Howard in the 1890s. A one of the few black men in the area, Howard had come to the remote northwest wilderness seeking fortune in the form of gold, silver and copper. Howard never made the big leagues, however, and his name ultimately lost out over a derogatory one later bestowed by the mostly white residents of the area, reportedly in his honor, Coon Lake.
Reporting by the website Crosscut indicates that while there may be no smoking gun linking Coon Lake to Mr. Howard, the same area once boasted a "nigger creek," which was changed to "negro creek" in the 1960s before finally becoming Etienne Creek in 2009, in honor of another black prospector, Antoine Etienne.
"I think that we have to recognize that no matter what our backgrounds may be that we're all affected by discrimination," Rosenblum told Mic. "To the extent that even the name of a place diminishes one person or one group of people, it really diminishes all of us as a society."
Rosemblum's movement is far from just a one-man crusade by a professional agitator. In 2007, he successfully lobbied local authorities to change the name on the state level with the backing of Eastern Washington State Historical Society, the Chelan County commissioners and the county sheriff. The federal government, however, blocked the move, citing what they said was a lack of evidence and Howard's own lack of contribution to the area. As of this writing, Coon Lake remains in place on all federal maps and informational literature, like this National Park Service Trail Guide.
On Sept. 23, a bipartisan group of 50 lawmakers from the Washington State legislature issued a formal petition to the state's two senators demanding the the federal government follow the state's decision.
"We urge you to work with the administration and your colleagues to right this wrong, and align the federal government with Washington state's decision to change the name of Coon Lake, and make our national parks welcoming to all people," the letter reads.
"Officially, to the state it's Howard Lake," Rosenblum said, adding with no shortage of irony, "If you're our governor, Jay Inslee, you call it Howard Lake, and if you're our president, Barack Obama, you call it Coon Lake."
While U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell has the power to make the change unilaterally, it so far does not appear likely anytime soon. "[We're] not going to become the court of appeals," on name change requests, a spokesman for Jewell told Raw Story.
McKinleyJewell's position on Coon Lake contrasts starkly with comments she made about a more heralded name change in recent days, the switch from Alaska's Mt. McKinley to Denali. "The name Denali has been official for use by the state of Alaska since 1975, Jewell said in a press release. "With our own sense of reverence for this place, we are officially renaming the mountain Denali in recognition of the traditions of Alaska Natives and the strong support of the people of Alaska."
Rosenblum, the man who originally got the ball rolling, said after success with Denali, he is optimistic for an eventual change of heart. "There are good people in the parks service who want to right this wrong," he said.
"I am hopeful that we'll prevail and justice will prevail."