Having a truly righteous idea, Robert Satiacum says, is like a warm shower.
“You know the feeling,” he said. “You adjust the temperature a little bit this way, a little bit that way and when it’s just perfect you just stand there and go ‘Ahhh’ while it flows over you.”
That’s the way he felt, said Satiacum, a member of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, when it came to him that the original name of the Northwest’s tallest mountain needed to be restored.
That was several months ago, and since then Satiacum’s idea has grown into an American Indian crusade – not just to start calling Mount Rainier “Ti’Swaq,” but to restore traditional names of spiritual places throughout the Pacific Northwest.
“We’re getting calls from all over,” Satiacum said. “This has taken on a life of its own.”
Today, Indian people from as far away as British Columbia and Montana will gather in Tacoma’s Portland Avenue Park for a Day of 1000 Drums, a celebration of spiritual places and a rally for the restoration of ancestral names.
“We’re planning for 1,000 drums, but I’m hoping for Woodstock,” Satiacum said.
In addition to the drummers, he said, a dozen other musical groups and American Indian speakers have signed on to lend their support, including Nisqually elder Billy Frank Jr., actor and Indian activist John Trudell, singers Pura Fe and Star Nayea, and the Quilleute Mask Dancers.
AUDACITY AND PRIDE
Strictly speaking, Satiacum said, they’re not asking that Mount Rainier’s name be changed, but that its real name be restored. The mountain already had a name for thousands of years when Europeans arrived, he points out.
George Vancouver was the one who changed it, he said, to honor a British military man who had never set foot on North America and, in fact, fought against Americans during their revolution.
Today’s rally is about more than just names. The real issue, Satiacum said, is American Indian pride and respect.
The audacity of European explorers who put their own names on whatever they found was a symbol of the disrespect and aggression that all but destroyed indigenous people, he said.
“You don’t just barge into somebody’s house and say, ‘This is what things are going to be called,’” he said. “They stripped our culture down to the bare metal. We need to start righting those wrongs.”
‘THE RED ROAD’
Satiacum was born notorious, being the son of the controversial Puyallup leader Bob Satiacum, who died in Canada in 1991 while a fugitive from the U.S. justice system.
But the younger Satiacum has made a name for himself in many other ways. He’s an idea man, a promoter, a spiritual adviser.
He is a founder of Full Circle, a cultural activist coalition that successfully took on entrenched leadership of the Puyallup Tribe, and he started the unofficial tribal website, www.puyalluptribalnews.com, which opened communication among tribal members.
He also is an actor, most notably playing a tribal cop in the 2005 Foxhall Films comedy “Rain in the Mountains.”
Satiacum also is a deeply spiritual person, an advocate of the purifying ritual of sweat lodges and helping others along “The Red Road,” a moral path based on traditional native values.
Satiacum has thrown himself headlong into the names restoration campaign. He’s enlisted support of seven surrounding tribes and made trips to the mountain, stopping at businesses along the way and talking to park rangers to pitch the idea.
“We’ve been getting a very positive response,” he said. “The synchronicity of the way this is all lining up is just amazing.”
Deciding what aboriginal word to use for the mountain was harder than it sounded, he said. Putting specific names on prominent geographical features was not necessarily something local tribes automatically did.
The word that the city of Tacoma took its name from, also sometimes spelled “Tacobeh” or “Tahoma,” probably was a generic term for all snow-capped peaks, and not Mount Rainier in particular.
Also, Satiacum said, that word, when correctly pronounced, has so many clicks and glottal stops that it is virtually unpronounceable for modern tongues – his own included.
Satiacum opted for the name of a band of Indian people who lived high on the mountain’s slopes – the Ti’Swaq.
The pronunciation “tea-swawk” is acceptable, Satiacum said, though it really should be pronounced with more character given to the final K sound.
To be more accurate, the word should end with a coughlike exhalation of air, Satiacum said. “Think of blowing out a candle.”
The name is not exactly melodious, but that might be the least of the problems in having it officially substituted for Mount Rainier on maps.
Rainier might be a relatively recent name, but loyalty to it is intense, judging from past name-changing efforts.
Controversies over what the mountain should be called have raged for more than a century, most often by those wanting to call it Mount Tacoma.
During the early 20th century, Tacoma civic boosters fought hard for a change, assuming a perceptual link among the mountain, the city and the national park would kick-start economic development.
The city of Seattle fought equally hard to keep the name Mount Rainier, and all the efforts failed.
University of Washington historian John Findlay, who specializes in Pacific Northwest history, says changing the mountain’s name would be almost unimaginably difficult.
“There’s so much investment in the present name, it’s hard to think of people agreeing to change it without a lot of kicking and screaming,” he said.
“There’s a huge economic incentive in keeping the name as it is,” Findlay said. “Think of all the signs, the maps, the businesses.”
Aside from economics, there’s the emotional attachment, he said.
“It’s not only Mount Rainier National Park, it’s Rainier Beer. It’s on our license plates.”
For the mountain’s name to be officially changed, it must be approved by the Washington State Board on Geographic Names, which works in cooperation with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. The state board relies heavily on community input. When controversy arises, the board tends to stay with the status quo.
But Satiacum is not dissuaded. So far, he’s spent $14,000 of his own money on the effort (which he hopes to have reimbursed by contributing tribes).
And he’s committed himself in another, more physical way.
Part 2 of the Ti’Swaq effort involves Satiacum climbing to the top of the mountain June 7-8 and planting a carved cedar staff on the summit. The staff is to remain there until the restored name is officially recognized.
The staff is ready. Satiacum ordered a bald eagle head from the National Eagle Repository in Denver, and a taxidermist has prepared it to be mounted on top of the staff.
But whether Satiacum himself is ready is another question.
He’s been trying to get in shape, but he’s worried about his knees. He was hurt playing soccer in high school and since then has had 13 knee operations, including a full knee replacement on the right side.
“I’m praying,” he said.
Rob Carson: 253-597-8693 firstname.lastname@example.org