For many years going back to the mid-1800s, the Indian name of what is now called “Mount Rainier” has been a matter of scrutiny and discussion. Pertinent writings and documents on the topic housed at the Puyallup Tribe’s Historic Preservation Department provide a wonderful history lesson on the various spellings and pronunciations of names local Indian tribes have given to the beloved provider and all she represents. Experts at the Tribe’s Language Program also have information at hand to address the subject.
From studying these documents and talking to Puyallup Tribal elders, historians and linguists, “Tacobet” is the most commonly used word in the Puyallup language for the mountain, and is interpreted as meaning ice-capped or glacier-capped mountain. There are numerous spellings and pronunciations – Takopid, Tahoma (Klickitat and Yakama) and the anglicized Tacoma, for example. Variations are acceptable, and expected, in that when the Medicine Creek Treaty was signed local tribes were relocated to only three reservations – at Puyallup, Nisqually and Squaxin Island – which intermixed tribal people of different dialects. Given the tribes’ oral traditions, those who wrote down words wrote what they heard, and so two people could hear the same word pronounced differently and thus spell it differently. However, there is no real significance in the differentiation of pronunciation according to knowledgeable sources.
Efforts to restore the mountain’s name to its original Indian name occurred as early as 1917. That year the Justice to the Mountain Committee, upon request of the Washington State Legislature, presented arguments to the United States Geographic Board to remove the name “Rainier” and replace it with “Tacoma.” However, those efforts were in vain – to this day the mountain is still called by a name that is practically meaningless to not only area Indian tribes, but to Washington citizens in general (see “How the mountain became ‘Rainier’” below).
Tacobet – Many variations, one meaning
In 1893, Hon. James Wickersham presented a document at the request of the Tacoma Academy of Science titled “Is it Mount Tacoma, or Rainier?” In it, Puyallup elders who spoke the Puyallup-Nisqually language, elders from other area tribes, white men who were present at the signing of the Medicine Creek Treaty, Indian agents and others provide sworn testimony, and testified to the Academy in person, that the name of the mountain has always been Tacobet.
In this document, there are pages of signed testimony of leaders and members of various tribes:
- “We, the undersigned, being Indians born near Mt. Tacoma, do say that the mountain was always called by the Nisqually Tribe ‘Tacobet.’”
- “We, being Indians raised near Port Orchard Bay and White River, do say that the Indian name for Mt. Tacoma was ever since we could remember and always before called ‘Tacobet.’’’
Daughter of Chief Seattle, Angeline, signed a statement that “the old Indian name for the great Mountain at the head of the Nisqually is ‘Tacobet’ and that my father Seattle always called it by that name.” James Wickersham’s document includes the signatures or “X” marks of many more Indians who say the old Indian name for the mountain is Tacobet.
An article published Feb. 26, 1924 in the Tacoma News Tribune (TNT) includes testimony from early settler and Presbyterian missionary Rev. M.G. Mann concerning the name Puyallups use when speaking of the mountain: “The name of the mountain was Tacoma, and when I came here in 1876 to act as superintendent for the Puyallup Indian Reservation, that was what it was called. In regard to the discrepancy that there seems to be about the pronunciation, there is really no significance. The important syllable of the word is ‘co’ which means water, and just whether it is given as Takhcoma or Tacobet is of no significance.”
Puyallup tribal leader Henry Sicade (1852-1909) agreed: “Tacoma, Tacobed, and Tahoma are practically the same name. It is simply the different ways of pronouncing the same name by different Indian tribes. My own people call it Tacobud…‘Ta’ – ‘that’ or ‘the,’ ‘co’ – ‘water’ and ‘bud’ where it comes from.”
In another TNT article from 1924, Father Peter Hylebos states about the Puyallup word for the mountain: “‘Ta’ in their (the Puyallups’) mother tongue is somewhat of a prefix… In the Puyallup Indian language, the word ‘co’ means water, and the word ‘ma’ means frozen water. And so when the Puyallup looks at the Cascade Range, he hails each one of the piles of snow that composes it ‘homa,’ pronouncing the ‘h’ with a guttural sound… We cannot say it, we say ‘coma.’ Pointing his finger to the highest heap of snow which he considers home of deity, he calls it ‘Tahoma’ and hence the beautiful name of Mount Tacoma.”
Some controversy has come into play over the use of Ti’Swaq’ (or a variation on this word) to name the mountain. In the highly detailed, three-volume set “History of Tacoma” by Herbert Hunt, Jerry Meeker addresses the word “Tiswauk,” stating that there is no such word in the Puyallup-Nisqually tongue. The Skykomish Indians, he said, gave the mountain a name somewhat similar – “Tawauk” or “Twauk.”
The Lushootseed-English dictionary includes reference to something close to Ti’Swaq’. In the literal Lushootseed dialect:
- xáE sky (sky) wiper; Mount Rainier. See xís(i), Tíx(i)
- s√waQas [gloss un-known]: Ru?Ò(u)asCeP XeA ti swaQas The water was stagnant like a (gloss unknown).-ML9.112
Henry Sicade also weighed in on this word. “Another name is in dispute; this dispute is not by us or by any inter-tribal disagreement, but by prominent white people of different sections of the State of Washington, given us by tribes further north or west; this name is Tiswauk. It means ‘barely discernable at a great distance,’ having the great mountain as a mark to designate the surrounding country.” He continues, “There is on the western slope of Mount Tacoma a little valley rich in nature’s gifts of berries, game and fish. This particular place was the real Tiswauk, inhabited by a small band of natives, called Tiswaukumsh, meaning people of that locality.”
A powerful woman
Puyallup legends come into play as well when discussing the mountain, for it is told that the mountain is a woman (a mother and grandmother, beautiful maiden and goddess) who feeds and protects her children forever. There are numerous legends that tell this story. John Xot (Hote), ancestral tribal leader and signer of the Medicine Creek Treaty, learned about the mountain from his grandfather in keeping with oral tradition.
“The Puyallups loved their grandmother Tacobet, the mountain that is now called Rainier,” he was once quoted as saying. “Tacobet fed them and her other grandchildren through her rivers, which she kept always supplied with life-giving fish and clear, cold water.
“Tacobet had received this privilege from the moon. In the beginning of things, Tacobet was a lovely woman. She was less powerful only than the moon who gave her the privilege of choosing what she would like to be when the end came. She wished to be a mountain because in this way she might always feed her grandchildren, sending everlasting life to her own people the Puyallups.”