By Ryan Lancaster Columbia Basin Herald
SOAP LAKE — Soap Lake’s name may change to Lake Smokiam in an effort to bridge relations with American Indians.
A state committee is considering whether to reinstate the original name.
Under the proposal the city of Soap Lake would keep its current title while the lake itself would revert to Lake Smokiam, a Salish Mid-Columbian term translating to “healing waters.”
Soap Lake resident Bonnie Holt-Morehouse and Moses Lake historian and author Robert Ruby are leading the charge to change the name.
Ruby wrote numerous books on American-Indian culture since the early 1950s, when he was a surgeon on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He said the name change came from a discussion between he and Holt-Morehouse, who is a fan of his work.
For 11,000 years the people, of what is now known as the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, utilized the body of water as an important gathering place and a place of traditional healing, according to Ruby and other historians.
The name change came sometime in the 19th century when European settlers started to outnumber native tribal members and, in a nod to the lake’s frothy waters, dubbed it Soap Lake, according to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names.
Ruby and Holt-Morehouse list several reasons why they believe the lake’s original title should be reinstated, foremost among them being the potential benefit to relations between native people and current residents.
The change would offer an opportunity for education about the history of the site for natives and non-natives alike, Ruby said, and would “demonstrate the good faith of non-Indians today for Indian people and their values and history.”
He points to recent federal legislation requiring the return of native cultural elements and artifacts to the tribes they were taken from, and asserts names can fit into this category.
“Tribes across America are taking steps to rename important landmarks, the names of which were either lost or changed through settlement and federal policies,” he stated.
Any Washington resident can propose a new geographical name, resolution for a controversial name, correction of an established name or a name change by submitting an application to the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names.
The process can take up to a year from start to finish, but seems to be moving along quickly in the case of Soap Lake.
The Geographic Names Committee held an initial hearing in November and scheduled a final hearing in Olympia on May 18.
If the committee accepts the name change the proposal will be forwarded with a recommendation for approval to the Washington State Board on Geographic Names, which oversees the official establishment of names throughout the state.
The committee is now in the process of soliciting opinions and comments from historical societies, county officials, federal agencies, local clubs and any other group or person who can provide information on the proposal, according to information provided by the Geographic Names Committee.
“So far we’ve gotten a lot of support,” Ruby said.
Soap Lake Mayor Raymond Gravelle said the primary reason he’s onboard with the idea is that the change would show respect to natives.
“They were there first,” he told the Columbia Basin Herald. “It would be appropriate to return the lake to its former name.”
Gravelle noted the name change is a logical next step in the process of improving relations with members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, who were included in an unveiling of the “Calling the Healing Waters” sundial erected on the shore of Soap Lake in 2009.
Colville Tribal Business Council chair Michael Finley stated enthusiastic support for the name change in a letter to the Geographic Names Committee.
“We applaud the efforts of the citizens of Soap Lake, especially Mrs. Morehouse and Dr. Robert Ruby for proposing this name change,” he wrote. “It demonstrates their dedication to bridging the gap between the native and Anglo communities.”
Finley went on to explain that “Lake Smokiam” is located in the traditional homeland of the Moses Columbia people, a constituent tribe of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
“This region was and continues to be significant to native people due to the abundant food resources and traditional cultural sites, such as the lake itself,” he stated. “Our people have lived in this area and utilized its resources from time immemorial and continue to use the same resources today.”
In their own letter to the Geographical Names Committee, Ruby and Holt-Morehouse request any future geographic publication of maps list the lake under its native name.
“It is our purpose to restore honor to the body of water,” they state. “It’s existence has been significant to the health of humans and animals since the beginning of time. It earned the name Lake Smokiam, `healing waters,’ long ago.”