The Case for Tahoma

Denali was given back its original name in 2015 by executive order, so why not change Mount Rainier back to Tahoma? This has been proposed several times over the past century. In this thoughtful essay, a Tahoma enthusiast argues why it should be considered again.
Cooper Weissman Cooper Weissman
University of Puget Sound graduate
July 01, 2017
by Cooper Weissman, University of Puget Sound graduate

The name Rainier means a lot to people in the Pacific Northwest: it's our majestic guardian mountain and the first major summit for many local outdoor enthusiasts. It was also the training ground for famed Mountaineers member and first American to summit Mount Everest, Jim Whittaker. Do you know what essential item he carried on his journey to the top of the world? Why mountain-fresh Rainier beer of course!

Despite the significance and near omnipresence of the name however, many have not heard of Peter Rainier, Jr., after whom the mountain was named. I was in this camp myself until I read The Mountaineers’ inaugural newsletter, published in 1907. In the first article, W.D. Lyman, a professor from Whitman College, protested, “Rainier was an insignificant English naval officer and his name was attached to the sublimest object on the American continent by the doughty and self-opinionated Briton [George] Vancouver, with true British conceit.”

Of course, there are other names for this mountain much older than George Vancouver, which Lyman also addressed. “Tacoma, or rather Tahoma, was the Puyallup name from immemorial time, meaning, according to some, the mountain, the Supreme Mountain, and according to others, the breast of the milk-white waters,” said Lyman, and added a plea, “We would venture to ask if it would not be a fine thing for the Mountaineers to consider seriously an attempt to restore these beautiful and significant native names thrust aside by the first explorers. […] The more of them we can keep the better.”

I grew up in Los Angeles County and first arrived in Tacoma as a prospective student of the University of Puget Sound in the spring of 2012. Just before dusk, on a clear evening, I beheld Tahoma from sea-level, ultra-prominent and wearing a rose pink glow, and I instantly felt welcome and secure as one feels in the presence of a caring adult. In the five years that I've lived in the city named after the mountain, I have loved Tahoma in numerous ways - whether it be camping among its scenic alpine lakes, hiking and taking in the aroma of its summertime wildflowers, or simply watching a sliver of the mountain emerge from the clouds for a passing moment during the winter months to remind me that everything is going to be okay.

Given that the closest Admiral Rainier ever came to the mountain was on a trip to the east coast of the United States to fight for the British in the Revolutionary war, I must concur with Dr. Lyman that, if any person has ever been significant enough to name a mountain after, it certainly wasn’t him.

The name Rainier strikes me as utterly meaningless in comparison with the indigenous appellations because the only story Rainier tells is one of colonization. Tahoma, on the other hand, carries with it the invaluable narratives of the first people of this land including one in which a great flood threatened the lives of people and other animals in the region who were only able to survive by scrambling to the top of the peak and remaining there together until the waters subsided. For mountaineers and others in this area, Tahoma continues to be a place of refuge from the many problems that flood our minds and our society today. In Mountaineer magazine, I have read stories of veterans with PTSD practicing “adven-therapy” by summiting the mountain, and I have read about Glenn Nelson’s Seattle-based media initiative, The Trail Posse, which seeks to “diversify by demystifying the outdoors” and features stories about youth of color finding their place in the outdoors on beginner hikes in Mt. Rainier National Park.

Efforts to restore the name to “Tahoma” or “Tacoma” have been around for more than a century, but have generally been confined to movements among indigenous tribes in the area or advocacy groups in the city of Tacoma. In 2009, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names rejected a petition to rename the mountain on the grounds that “the overwhelming support and the predominate use of the locals was for Mount Rainier.” Unlike Denali, which Alaskan locals refused to call McKinley and was finally restored to its original name in 2015, Rainier has stuck and has proven difficult to unstick.

So why then, 110 years later, is Rainier still the default name for the majority of outdoors enthusiasts and the name used almost exclusively in Mountaineers publications, and what, if anything, can and should The Mountaineers do to restore the name?

I will be completely transparent: I do not believe that there is any valid argument for why we should maintain the name Rainier. Sure, it is familiar, enough so that it still occasionally slips from my mouth, but its familiarity is precisely why petitions by tribal communities to restore the name have been denied in the past. The Mountaineers, as the premier regional mountaineering organization, has the opportunity - and I would say moral obligation - to act in community with local tribal leaders and become advocates for the restoration of the indigenous name.

It has been 225 years since Vancouver vacated 10,000 years of history with the stroke of a pen, 110 years since W.D. Lyman’s article appeared in the first issue of “The Mountaineer,” and it might be decades more until the mountain’s original name is legally reinstated, however, just as Lyman’s words can reverberate into the present, so too can our actions effect profound changes in the future. If it isn't The Mountaineers’ duty to act as allies to the tribes whose supreme mountain has been a gift to us all then I wonder whose it is.


What do you think?

Should the name Rainier be reevaluated? Answer in the comments below.

To find more historical treasures, you can read through The Mountaineers annuals starting in 1907 here.

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Bob Wicklein
Bob Wicklein says:
Sat, Jul 1, 2017 9:40 AM

Yes, the name change to Tahoma is long overdue and The Mountaineers should be a leader in this effort to get the name changed.

Sharon Borough
Sharon Borough says:
Sat, Jul 1, 2017 9:43 AM

Thanks Cooper Weissman for writing this article and to the Mountaineers for posting it. This atricle has convinced me to change how I call the mountain and I have shared this on my facebook and linkedin asking others to consider the same. I have long heard about the desire for Mt. Tahoma and support it, but I did not understand how Rainier came to be and I kind of liked how it included the term "rain" which is reflective of our weather here, and yes it is a pervasive name. But from this moment forward I will call it by the more deeply meaningful name of Mt. Tahoma. Thanks for educating me!

Jacob Lopilato
Jacob Lopilato says:
Sat, Jul 1, 2017 3:01 PM

Absolutely!

Tina Fox
Tina Fox says:
Sat, Jul 1, 2017 10:06 PM

So the big question is, if it is renamed, can I attempt to be the first to summit "Mt Tahoma" since 1890??? ;)

Roland Livingston
Roland Livingston says:
Sun, Jul 2, 2017 7:31 AM

Just learning about this makes me wonder why there has been so little push for the name change back to the original. I support the effort, and will use the name Tahoma, though I believe it will be a long slog for the change to come. I am preparing for my first attempt to summit Tahoma, planning to do so in 2018 to celebrate my 75th birthday.

Michael Kovacs
Michael Kovacs says:
Sun, Jul 2, 2017 8:31 AM

It is time to move forward and change the name back to what was recognized for thousands of years.

Carry Porter
Carry Porter says:
Fri, Jul 7, 2017 10:19 PM

Consider reading the excellent chapter in Measure of a Mountain by Bruce Barcott on the history of various attempts to rename Rainier and why it is probably folly.

Nick Bogert
Nick Bogert says:
Sun, Jul 9, 2017 1:46 PM

Great article! Very interesting history lesson. Definitely support changing the name back. Also, I second Tina Fox's comment :)

Tess Wendel
Tess Wendel says:
Mon, Aug 28, 2017 10:53 AM

Tahoma is LONG overdue!