Restoring a Native Name for Mount Baker?

by Allan Richardson 

A view of the summit of Mount Baker from the Portals in August 2021.
photo: Sally Vaux

How should we name our mountains and other geographic features? How do we balance between native names and those given by explorers and surveyors? Mount McKinley in Alaska was officially renamed Denali in 2015, thus restoring the name that it had been known by for many, many centuries in the past. What about restoring an Indigenous name for Mount Baker? This question was recently explored by Feliks Banel on KIRO radio under the title “If Mount Rainier’s name is changed, what about Mount Baker?” (1) But what native name would Mount Baker be given? It is often stated that “Koma Kulshan” is the native name for Mount Baker, but this is not the name for Mount Baker in any native language. Rather, there are actually several authentic native names to choose from.

The speakers of the four Salishan languages nearest to Mount Baker each had a different name for the mountain. In the Nooksack language, the ice and snow covered top is named Kweq’ Smánit, literally white mountain, while the high meadows around the peak are Kwelshán, meaning shooting place because it was an important hunting area. In the Halkomelem language along the Fraser River, the one name for the mountain is Kwelxá:lxw, and, in Lummi, it is Kwelshán. These are clearly cognate to the Nooksack Kwelshán, but Lummi sources take it to mean a place that has been wounded by a shot. To Lushootseed speakers along the Skagit River, Mount Baker is Teqwúbe7, meaning any snow-capped peak, a term also used for Mount Rainier and which comes into English as Tacoma. 

The one often used native name for Mount Baker that is clearly authentic is Kulshan, from the Lummi Kwelshán, with a recorded history dating back to the 1850s. Where did the mistaken name “Koma Kulshan” come from? After exploring the linguistic origins of native names and the historic record of naming, the likely source of the mistaken name will be revealed. 

Linguistic Origins
Speakers of three languages had direct access to the slopes of Mount Baker: The Nooksack people speaking the Nooksack language, Lhéchalosem, used the north and west slopes in the Nooksack River drainage; the Chilliwack speakers of Halkomelem used the north slopes in the North Fork Nooksack drainage; and the Upper Skagit people, speakers of Lushootseed, used the south and east slopes in the Baker River drainage. All groups used this mountain region for hunting game animals and gathering berries. The higher elevations are noted as an area for hunting mountain goats. The significance of Mount Baker to the Nooksack people is stated in “Nooksack Place Names: Geography, Culture, and Language”:

This mountain is visible throughout the Nooksack area and a great distance beyond. Mount Baker and the surrounding mountain area are important in Nooksack religious beliefs and practices, and traditionally were an important source of wealth from mountain goat wool and an important source of food from meat and berries. (2)

It should not be surprising that the Nooksack people had different names for different parts of “their” mountain. Meadows at the foot of Mount Baker are Spelhpálhxen, many meadows. The high open slopes of Mount Baker are Kwelshán, shooting place. The steep summit of Mount Baker is Kweq’ Smánit, or white mountain. Spelhpálhxen refers to lower elevation sheltered meadows where people camped, which emphasizes the importance of the area though not a name for the mountain. Kwelshán was described by Nooksack elder George Swanaset in 1950 as “the slopes clear of underbrush where they hunted.” (3) Kwelshán, phonetically kwəlšǽn, is formed from a word root kwwlš, meaning to shoot (with bow and arrow, later with gun), and a suffix –æn, meaning place. Kweq’ Smánit refers to the glacier-covered top of Mount Baker and is formed from two Nooksack words: kweq’ meaning white and smánit meaning mountain. In the other three nearby native languages, a single term for the entire mountain is used for Mount Baker, and the speakers of two of these languages likely borrowed and modified the name from a Nooksack original.

Halkomelem speakers along the lower Fraser River and its tributaries know Mount Baker as Kwelxá:lxw, with the same gloss on meaning as given above for the Nooksack cognate Kwelshán. Halkomelem speakers long ago may have taken the Nooksack word for the hunting area and used it to name both the hunting area and the peak of Mount Baker. The Lummi dialect of Northern Straits similarly used Kwelshán, with a phonetically different second vowel, to name the entire mountain. Since the Lummi did not hunt on the slopes of Mount Baker, they may not have recognized the literal meaning, shooting place, and instead interpreted it to refer to a place that has been shot. 

The Skagit River people named Mount Baker Teqwúbe7, which translates as “any snow-capped mountain.” Other Lushootseed speakers further south on Puget Sound use this same word to name Mount Rainier. The U.S. Northwest Boundary Survey records have Te-kó-meh as the name for Mount Baker, and a similar anglicized form became Tacoma, named after Mount Rainier. The second and third syllables of the Lushootseed word may be the source of the “Koma” part of “Koma Kulshan.”

Historical Usage
People have been arguing over the proper name for Mount Baker since the late 18th century. The name Mount Baker first appeared in print in Captain Vancouver’s 1798 narrative of his voyage around Vancouver Island. As the story goes, his third-lieutenant, Joseph Baker, was the first to spot the mountain while they sailed near Dungeness Spit on April 30, 1792. (4) However, Spanish mariners were the first Europeans to see the mountain. In July of 1790, Quimper drew a sketch of the mountain and gave it the name La gran montaña del Carmelo. (5) 

The first documented use of an Indigenous name for Mount Baker comes to us from the author Theodore Winthrop, who traveled from Victoria, B.C., to visit the Lummi people on August 14 and 15 of 1853. (6) Winthrop recorded the name Kulshan and gave a charged opinion on what he believed to be the proper name of the mountain:

Kulshan, misnamed Mount Baker by the vulgar, is their northernmost buttress, up at 49° and Fraser River. Kulshan is an irregular, massive, mound-shaped peak, worthy to stand a white emblem of perpetual peace between us and our brother Britons. The northern regions of Whulge [Puget Sound] and Vancouver Island have Kulshan upon their horizon. They saw it blaze the winter before this journey of mine; for there is fire beneath the Cascades, red war suppressed where the peaks, symbols of truce, stand in resplendent quiet. Kulshan is best seen, as I saw it one afternoon of that same August, from an upland of Vancouver Island, across the golden waves of a wheat-field, across the glimmering waters of the Georgian Sound, and far above its belt of misty gray pine-ridges. The snowline here is at five thousand feet, and Kulshan has as much height in snow as in forest and vegetation. Its name I got from the Lummi tribe at its base, after I had dipped in their pot at a boiled-salmon feast. As to Baker, that name should be forgotten. Mountains should not be insulted by being named after undistinguished bipeds, nor by the prefix of Mt. Chimborazo, or Mt. Dhawalaghiri, seems as feeble as Mr. Julius Caesar, or Signor Dante. (7) 

In a later, 1913 edition of Winthrop’s narrative, Dr. Charles Milton Buchanan, the physician and superintendent of the Tulalip Indian Reservation, provided a footnote explaining the meaning of Kulshan. He wrote:

‘Kulshan’ is a Lummi word indicating that the summit of the peak has been damaged, or blown off by an explosion (‘just as if shot at the end,’ as one Indian explained it). This word is used of other things damaged or supposed to be damaged in a similar manner, and it is not limited at all in its use to Mount Baker. The term does not mean ‘The Great White Watcher’ or ‘The Shining One,’ as commonly interpreted. (8)

Source of Term “Koma Kulshan”
The origin and history of the use of “Koma Kulshan” is covered at length in “Koma Kulshan: The Misnaming of a Mountain” by Allan Richardson and Abe Lloyd. (9) A small part of their research is included here.

The first recorded use of the combined term Koma Kulshan appears in a 1912 publication by Bellingham resident and art jeweler Charles Finley Easton who wrote:

The real meaning of the Indian name for our mountain expresses infinitely more than the commonplace title by which it is known. Kwina, the last chieftain of the Lummi tribe, now upwards of eighty years of age, says that Koma Kulshan (pronounced ‘kō-ō’mah’ kool-shän’) is the name by which Mount Baker was known in common with his tribe and the Nooksacks and Skagits. The meaning of Koma is White and Shining; of Kulshan, Precipitous, in other words, the White, Steep, Mountain. And it comes home to you, at Camp Heliotrope, in a manner peculiarly striking. (10)

Easton’s source for the name Koma Kulshan was Chief Henry Kwina, a prominent figure in Lummi History. He and his brother Whilano (who was known to the white settlers as Davy Crockett) watched their uncle, Chow-its-hoot, the so-called “head chief” of the Lummi, sign the Point Elliott Treaty in 1855. When Chow-its-hoot died, Whilano took up his uncle’s position. Whilano recognized Kwina as the heir apparent to his position in 1865, and, in 1874 when Whilano passed away, Kwina formally took on leadership among the Lummi and maintained that position until his death in 1926, at the age of 92. While a young man, Kwina worked as a messenger for Captain George Edward Pickett (later a General of Civil War fame). Kwina ran from Whatcom to Gooseberry Point, and then canoed to Friday Harbor to deliver messages for Pickett. Kwina’s mother was a Duwamish woman and speaker of Lushootseed, which may account for the inclusion of “Koma” in the claimed Lummi name for Mount Baker.

Easton’s interview with Chief Kwina required an interpreter, and important details may have been lost in translation. One might speculate that Kwina gave two distinct names for the mountain, one in the language of his mother, and the other in the language of his father, which were combined in translation and recorded by Easton as Koma Kulshan.

Other early uses of “Koma Kulshan” all appear after 1912. These include the U.S. Forest Service Koma Kulshan Guard Station and Ranger Station that was built by the CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] in 1933 west of Baker Lake, and the Komo Kulshan Ski Club founded in 1940. 

In summary, native names for Mount Baker have often been used by non-natives, although often with erroneous meanings attached to these names. Variations of Kulshan have a recorded history dating back more than 150 years to the founding of the first white settlements on Bellingham Bay. There is ample linguistic evidence to confirm that Kulshan is the Lummi word for Mount Baker. Linguistic evidence indicates that the term “Koma Kulshan” is almost certainly mistaken. Though possibly used by Lummi Chief Henry Kwina, Koma likely comes from the Lushootseed term Teqwúbe7 (meaning snow-capped mountain), while Kulshan comes from the Lummi language. Among the Nooksack, the name Kwelshán, anglicized as Kulshan, is applied to the alpine slopes where game and berries can be harvested. The Nooksack have a completely different word for the snow-bound summit (Kweq’ Smánit).

If Mount Baker were to be renamed, which native name would be used?  


Allan Richardson taught anthropology at Whatcom Community College for 38 years. He has published on Northwest Coast native culture and has served as consultant to the Nooksack Indian Tribe for a number of grants and legal cases.

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