Somewhere there is a threshold of blatancy we should not pass; Coon Lake should be renamed.

Share story

It is the residue of a different age, when many Americans thought of us as a nation divided into rival racial tribes, and deliberately derogatory and racist labels were part of our everyday conversations. We have changed, so much for the better, that many of us cannot imagine a world where it would be perfectly fine to name a body of water Coon Lake or Coon Creek because an African-American miner once had a claim nearby. Be thankful that there are young people today only vaguely aware of the racial content in the term “coon.”

We Americans cannot erase our racist history. We cannot change the past by rewriting “Huckleberry Finn” to eliminate the more than 200 uses of a word now so despicable I cannot repeat it here. We can’t void 300 years of slavery by pretending the Civil War was a spat over interpretations of the Constitution. We cannot reverse the Trail of Tears by changing the name of a football team.

But we don’t have to put up with place names that by contemporary standards are hurtful and offensive. The names, especially in the West, were often arbitrarily applied by the descendants of Europeans, who only recently arrived and often were just passing by and needed something to write on a map. Coon Lake and Coon Creek in the Stehekin Valley might have gotten their label that way.

To the relief of some, the National Park Service last week announced that after eight years of resistance it was supporting the name change from Coon Lake and Coon Creek to Howard Lake and Howard Creek, a change adopted by the state of Washington in 2007. Now the U.S. Board of Geographic Names will have the opportunity to make the change official.

Howard Lake refers to Wilson Howard, an African-American miner who filed claims in the area in the 1890s. The change is almost single-handedly the work of a Seattle resident with Stehekin family ties, Jonathan Rosenblum, who has been pressing the issue for better than a decade, efforts reported in Crosscut, The Seattle Times and The Wenatchee World.

Changing place names for a seemingly emotional cause is a difficult thing. Coon Lake had its defenders, especially among locals who were accustomed to the name or saw the change as motivated by political correctness. The Park Service itself held that it could find no evidence of Howard’s claims, or that it didn’t know for sure that the name “Coon” had anything to do with Howard’s race. Perhaps Coon Lake got its name because a pack of raccoons lived in the area, the Park Service said implausibly. With the change in heart, U.S. Reps. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, and Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, have urged the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to adopt the change.

This process will be never-ending. There are Coon Lakes all across the country, and not all of them named for fur-bearing mammals. Etienne Creek off Blewett Pass until 2009 was known as Negro Creek, the name it received in 1963 when the federal government expunged the Huckleberry Finn term from federal lands. I recall seeing a partly sanitized map referring to “Niger Creek,” as if we could pretend a stream in the mining district was somehow named for a river in West Africa. And the federal maps still show Wenatchee situated at the foot of Squaw Saddle, even if nobody calls it anything but Saddle Rock. Don’t underestimate how demeaning some people find that term.

Of course, we can’t change place names based on passing social fancy. Tradition and habit are not easily ignored. But somewhere there is a threshold of blatancy we should not pass. No more Coon.