By K.C. Mehaffey The Wenatchee World
SOAP LAKE — A proposal to change the name of Soap Lake to Lake Smokiam is generating strong opposition from residents of the town of Soap Lake.
Ever since the state’s Committee on Geographic Names agreed to a final hearing on the proposal, comments have been flooding in, and most are against it. The hearing is scheduled for May 18 in Olympia.
Some wrote long letters, and others simply checked “oppose this proposal” in a form letter to the committee.
“Those of us who were born and raised in Soap Lake are ‘natives’ and should be heard as this issue is being discussed. The name of the lake is important, and is part of our identity,” wrote Michael Collins, a 1963 Soap Lake High School graduate, now of Redmond.
Randall Taylor, of Soap Lake, wrote only “It isn’t broken.”
Several people thought changing the lake’s name would leave the city of Soap Lake with little meaning, since it would no longer sit next to a lake by the same name.
Some opponents also grabbed onto news last month that Smokiam did not mean “healing waters,” as proponents were suggesting, but rather translated roughly to “the area of sunflowers,” according to Colville Tribal language instructor Ernie Brooks. However, Brooks said Monday that he later consulted with a tribal elder about the meaning, and was incorrect in his interpretation. Although it could also refer to sunflowers, “It would be more related to the alkali in the lake,” he said, which likely referenced the lake’s medicinal values.
Michael Finley, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, wrote a letter in December expressing the tribes’ enthusiastic support for the proposal by two residents of the area who are not tribal members. “It demonstrates their dedication to bridging the gap between the native and Anglo communities,” he wrote.
Finley declined to comment on all the opposition.
Brent Blake, who initially came up with the idea of bringing a giant Lava Lamp to Soap Lake, argued in his letter that all of the publicity for the town would be lost if the lake’s name is changed.
“Two billion people throughout the world have learned the name Soap Lake Healing Waters because of the international (worldwide) media frenzy regarding the ‘Soap Lake Giant Lava Lamp Project,’ ” he wrote.
At its last meeting, the Soap Lake City Council voted 6-0 against the change, with one councilman abstaining. A show of hands of those attending also opposed the change, 28-14.
Mayor Raymond Gravelle said it was an emotional debate. “The people opposed were adamantly opposed, it wasn’t just like, ‘No, we don’t think so,’” he said last week. “It was all very cordial. There wasn’t any shouting. But there was a lively discussion,” he added.
Gravelle said most council members appeared convinced that the change would cost individual businesses, because all of their printed materials would need to change their references to Soap Lake, the lake.
Others arguing against it said they grew up knowing it as Soap Lake, and wanted to keep the name they knew.
Gravelle said he didn’t vote in the council decision, and when he first heard about the change, he was for it. “I was in favor for the simple reason that I believe it’s very important for this community to reach out to the tribes,” he said.
But after talking to more people in Soap Lake, Gravelle said he decided to remain neutral on the issue, and instead take on the role of gathering information from supporters and opponents to be sure the council heard both sides of the issue.
He added that even if they don’t want to change the name, people in Soap Lake proudly refer to the lake’s original name. Soap Lake’s alternative school is named Smokiam, and signs in town proclaim Smokiam as healing waters.
Last year, when the proposal was in its initial stages, the Grant County Commissioners and Grant County Sheriff also opposed the change.
Bonnie Holt-Morehouse, a Soap Lake resident who proposed the change along with Moses Lake historian Dr. Robert Ruby, said she’s disappointed by all the opposition, but still hopeful that the committee will see beyond some small-town residents who she said just don’t like change.
“I hope they will look at the big picture,” she said.
The two proposed the change as a way to foster positive relations with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, boost Indian culture and pride, and educate people about the importance of the lake and its minerals.
Holt-Morehouse said the lake hasn’t been known as Soap Lake for long. She has a 1909 map that shows it as Alkali Lake.
She said only one small part of the lake borders the city. The lake itself — and the decision whether to rename it — belongs to the state, she said.
Mostly, Holt-Morehouse said, she hopes to draw attention to the loss of mineral content in the lake. She said every time the lake threatens to flood nearby homes, the city draws out large amounts of mineral-laden water.
The city also does not recycle the water and minerals used by Soap Lake motels and spas.
“I want to save the lake. I want to give the lake back its honor,” she said.