In 2015 President Obama used executive power to rename towering Mount McKinley, reverting to the original title used by indigenous Alaskans: Denali. Calling the continent’s highest point after a white man who never even saw the peak was no longer excusable, especially to Alaska’s native population. Some people think the same thing about the mountain named for Peter Rainier. (Explorer George Vancouver bequeathed the honor on his buddy, an unremarkable eighteenth-century rear admiral who fought in the Revolutionary War—on, ahem, the side of the redcoats—and never set eyes on his namesake.)
Tribes like the Puyallup, Nisqually, and Cowlitz, on the other hand, flourished around the mountain since 5,000 BCE, if not before. Northwest tribal names for the landmark include Tahoma, Tacoma, and Ti’Swaq—and there have been various pushes over the years to restore one of its original monikers. No proposal has yet swayed the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, but since the nineteenth century, Tacoma’s business community has pushed for the change for PR reasons.
Though the name remains, small reflections of the region’s Native American heritage are scattered throughout Mount Rainier National Park. While it’s thought that no tribe lived within the current park boundaries, indigenous people were known to visit—only 3.5 percent of the park lands have been inventoried by archaeologists, but they’ve already found 75 prehistoric sites and artifacts.
Native names like Nisqually, Mowich, and Mazama remain inside MRNP, though individuals honored within the park aren’t always given their full due. Dramatic Sluiskin Falls is named for a nineteenth-century Native guide who fearfully refused to summit the mountain and then dubbed the white men who did “strong men” and “brave hearts”—according to those white climbers, that is. One peace-making guide who lived near modern-day Eatonville was named So-To-Lick, but the mountainside meadow he loved, Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, uses his anglicized name.
Today, treaty rights give Nisqually tribal members free entrance into the park. While summer overnight spots often fill to capacity, sites at Longmire campground, a historic area otherwise closed to the public, are set aside for Nisqually tribe members; Ohanapecosh reserves three more for the Cowlitz.
“National parks are [here] to preserve our country’s heritage,” says Mount Rainier Superintendent Chip Jenkins, so he thinks it’s crucial to set aside space for the tribes in a park where campsites book up months in advance. Only a year into his job as the head honcho of the park, Jenkins already plans to emphasize indigenous history with cultural presentations and tribal crafts for sale.
The Nisqually tribe, meanwhile, has set its focus a little downstream. In recent years it has moved to protect the river that emerges from the Nisqually glacier above Paradise and flows down to Puget Sound near Olympia. Through land trusts and park partnerships, the tribe has helped protect and even restore salmon populations to one of the most dramatic waterways birthed on Rainier.