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Honor Sequim’s Salish heritage – and Rainier’s

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Aug. 5, 2010 at 7:50 pm |
August 6, 2010 12:55 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

What a spoilsport the truth can be.

For a century, the people of Sequim thought they were living in idyllic Quiet Waters – the supposed meaning of the city’s Klallam name. Never mind that the water is a ways off.

But a high-powered linguist, Timothy Montler, and the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe have now convincingly established that Sequim actually means, “place for going to shoot,” which sounds considerably less peaceful. A town more suited for Clint Eastwood than the Dalai Lama.

So where did “quiet waters” come from? “That’s something that somebody made up,” said Montler, a University of North Texas linguistics professor who specializes in endangered languages.

Next question: Who would invent a name like that out of whole cloth? Answer: a booster, most likely. Someone who wanted to cloak Sequim in a mystique of calm contentment. Maybe someone with a big stake in local commerce and real estate values.

One 1923 source, “Origin of Washington Geographic Names,” cites the authority of Matthew Fleming. A 1917 history, “Washington West of the Cascades,” describes Fleming as a pre-Civil War soldier and Indian-fighter who helped found Sequim in 1874. It seems likely that Fleming or a fellow land-owner came up with the “quiet waters” spin. Today, we call it branding.

At least Fleming and his buddies didn’t obliterate the Indian name entirely ­– an atrocity visited by the British upon the state’s most iconic feature, Mount “Rainier.”

The peak was named after an English admiral, Peter Rainier. The Salish Indians who lived in the mountain’s shadows referred to it by another name variously rendered into English as “Tahoma,” “Tacoba,” “Tacobet,” “Tacopa” and – our favorite – “Tacoma.”

The city was named after the mountain, though the U.S. Geographic Board wound up perpetuating the British term after weighing arguments that included racist sneers at the Salish tribes.

Sequim’s Klallam heritage will be honored with the restoration of the original, accurate tribal meaning of the city’s name. Who knows – maybe there’s hope that the Puyallups, Nisquallys and other Indians of this area will eventually be honored by restoring a Salish name to the great mountain.

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