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Indians of the Pacific Northwest
From the Coming of the White Man to the Present Day
By Vine Deloria Jr.
Fulcrum PublishingCopyright © 2012 Vine Deloria Jr.
All rights reserved.
When I was first elected to the directorship of the National Congress of American Indians, I was introduced to the tribes of the Pacific Northwest, particularly those tribes that live in and around the Puget Sound area. The Makahs, who live on Cape Flattery, one of the northern peninsulas of Washington State, told me how a Spanish expedition in the late 1700s had invaded their lands and built a fort. The Makahs bided their time, cleverly captured the fort one morning, and sent the Spanish fleeing for their boats, leaving behind cannons, guns, and all manner of goods. While the name of Juan de Fuca was given to the strait between the lands of the Makahs and Vancouver Island, the lands and waters remained in the hands of the Indians for some time afterward.
The chief complaint of the Indians of the Pacific Northwest when they would come to the national Indian political conventions would be that the whites, particularly the officials of the fish and game departments of Washington State, were violating their treaties and harassing the Indian fishermen. I grew up in South Dakota, a member of the Sioux tribe, and when we talked about fish in that country we were talking about something approximately six inches long that you were sometimes lucky to get out of a creek in midsummer. So I could never figure out just what the problem was in Washington State, and the idea of people complaining because they couldn't go fishing seemed a little absurd to me at the time.
But the coastal tribes kept after the rest of us. They would compare the salmon with the buffalo, telling us how the salmon was to them what the buffalo had been to the Plains tribes. It was, we all agreed, ridiculous to compare a tiny fish with the magnificent animal that had provided us with food, clothing, weapons, and other articles of our culture. We were polite but firm and tried to press on to larger and more important topics of discussion that affected Indians all over the nation.
Finally, perhaps in some despair over the stupidity of this Plains Indian they were trying to educate, the Pacific Northwest tribes invited me to come to Washington State and attend a meeting on Indian problems. I was eager to get out and meet the people of the different tribes, and so I accepted and flew to Seattle. A car picked me up, and we went to the state capital, Olympia, where the Indians were having a banquet with their congressman, Lloyd Meeds, who has spent his time in Congress working hard with the tribes to resolve some of their problems.
There were nearly fifty Indians at the banquet, and, of course, salmon was served. Everyone ate his fill of the delicious meal, and after the ceremonies and speeches one of the Indians took me to the kitchen to see the remains of the salmon that had provided us with our meal. I was confronted with the skeletal remains of a gigantic fish, far surpassing in size the tiny catfish of my youth. When I learned that this one salmon had fed the entire banquet, I came to understand why the salmon was so important to these people.
Over the next decade I kept in close touch with the tribes of the Puget Sound area and came to know many of their leaders very well, as friends and as fellow workers. They were always courteous, hospitable, and generous, often sending me smoked salmon when their delegations came east. I developed a special admiration for the tribes because they had persevered against incredible odds over the past century and were quite often betrayed by the federal officials who were supposed to help them.
I found that the more I learned about the people of the Pacific Northwest and their history, the more I wanted to learn. In 1970, I moved to upper Puget Sound to teach at Western Washington State College, in Bellingham, which was a mere twelve miles from the Lummi reservation. In the year and a half that I lived in the Northwest, only a half mile from the reservation, I learned much more about the tribes of the area. It always puzzled me that so little was known about these exciting people, who had developed a very sophisticated fishing technology centuries before the coming of the white man and who had successfully maintained their fishing culture even a century after they had been overwhelmed by the settlers.
To my knowledge, no adequate history of these tribes has ever been written. Most studies on Indian life in the Pacific Northwest have concentrated on the tribes farther north, in British Columbia, such as the Kwakiutl and the Nootka. These tribes, who live in what is now Canada, had a ceremony known as the potlatch, in which they gave away immense amounts of goods as a means of determining their social status and wealth, somewhat in the same manner as the very rich in today's society tend to create foundations to distribute their wealth. This Indian practice fascinated the early scholars who visited the area, and they tended to overemphasize the custom in their scholarly works, completely overlooking the other facets of Indian life that made the people of the area so interesting. Today when you look at a book on the Indians of the Pacific Northwest, chances are that you will find a great deal on the Kwakiutl and the Nootka but very little on the Lummi, the Makah, the Skagit, or the Nooksack, and certainly only the slightest mention of the Chehalis, the Nisqually, or the Chinook. Yet these tribes have a history well worth learning.
It is perhaps best to start with a description of their lands, for the manner in which these different tribes adapted to their lands pretty much determined how their social and political customs, and certainly their great economic wealth, came about. So we will concentrate on the area from the Canadian border along the west side of the Cascade mountain range, down to the Columbia River, and south of that river a little way into the Willamette Valley.
The Cascades form a giant barrier on the West Coast, catching the rains and winds from the Pacific, which blow constantly inland. In prehistoric times, the volcanoes of the Cascade were active, and some of the larger ones still smoke. Mount Baker, the largest of the far-northern mountains, formed part of the eastern border of the area, and within sight of its large snowfield lived the Lummi, Nooksack, Samish, and Semiahmoo around the Bellingham Bay area. To the south lived the Skagits, Swinomish, and Snohomish, near Whidbey Island and the Skagit Valley floodplains.
The Seattle area was settled by a number of small villages of Indians who fished the Green, White, Puyallup, and Nisqually rivers, and from that multitude of villages have come the Duwamish, Nisqually, Puyallup, and other tribes of today. The Nisqually ranged around the southern end of Puget Sound, near present-day Tacoma and Olympia. Beside them on the west, extending on around the western shore of Puget Sound, were the Squaxins and the Suquamish. On Cape Flattery lived the Makahs, and south of them along the coast were the Hohs, the Quileutes, the Queets, the Quinaults, and finally, along the Oregon coasts, the Chinooks.
Separating the lands of the coast tribes from the lands of the Puget Sound tribes were the majestic Olympic Mountains and the giant rain forest that blankets their slopes. Mount Rainier and other high mountains had their own glaciers and snowfields, which, along with the rain forests, ensured that the whole area west of the Cascades was interlaced with rivers, streams, and creeks of all sizes, fed in the fall and winter by the incessant rains from the ocean and in the summer by the melting of the snows. The White River, for example, was so called because of the color of the water as it came down the slopes of Mount Rainier. Other rivers seemed to change color as the seasons changed and the water shifted from melted snow to seasonal rain and back again.
Most of the mountains had special names given to them by the Indians who lived near them. Mount Rainier, for example, which figured prominently in their folklore, was called Dahkobeed by the Duwamish, Tacobud by the Nisqually, and Takkobad by the Puyallups. The Lummi name for Mount Baker, Komo Kulshan, meant "the great white watcher"; the mountain was said to watch over the people. Some of the Indian stories seemed ridiculous to the early settlers, especially those that accounted for the earliest geologic changes, but modern discoveries bear out the story line of the old Indian legends very well.
One old story told of the days when the eastern part of Washington was a gigantic lake and there was no Columbia River. The coyote, who was generally helpful to the people, realized that if there was no river the salmon could not come up into the lake, and the people would starve. So he made a hole in the mountains, and water began to drain from the lake into the ocean, forming the Columbia. Soon the salmon came, and the people were fed. For a while, a stone bridge existed where the coyote had dug through the Cascades, and people could cross the Columbia on this bridge. But eventually, during an earthquake, the bridge collapsed, forming the cascades of the Columbia, and the people had to use boats to cross the river. The funny thing is that new mapping techniques via satellite seem to indicate that a large lake did once exist in eastern Washington and that a channel eventually was formed that is now the Columbia River.
So completely did the rivers dominate the region that there were practically no trails through the dense forests at all. The Indians all traveled on the rivers, and except for the tribes that lived far inland on the slopes of the mountains (called horse Indians by the water peoples), everyone lived by the water and used canoes to get around. As the rivers were so important, it was natural that the people would keep track of each other according to river systems or drainages. The suffix -amish, which is found on many of the tribal names, for example Swinomish, Stilaguamish, Snohomish, Suquamish, Duwamish, and others, indicates that they are the "people of" a certain river system.
The Puget Sound area was one of the most heavily populated areas north of Mexico City before the coming of the white man. There was no formal tribal organization among the different groups, as was the case farther east and south. The rigid social system of the Pueblo villages, for example, and the highly developed clan system of the Iroquois were entirely foreign to this land. Rather, the people lived almost everywhere in very small groups. The average village consisted of one and perhaps as many as three long houses, comfortably containing from four to six families. They were usually constructed at river junctions or along favorite fishing sites such as a falls, or cascade, of a river.
The unusual aspect of Puget Sound life was that most of the villages had both summer houses, which were comparable to modern summer cabins, and winter houses at the more settled village from which the people generally took their name. Winter, though dreary and very rainy, was the time for the most important religious ceremonies, with the one exception of the first-salmon ceremony, observed at the beginning of the salmon runs, in spring. When not involved in their religious rituals, the Indians spent their time making needed household goods and fishing. The steelhead trout, which returns to the streams in winter, provided them with fresh meat, and food preserved during the previous summer further supplemented their diet.
Spring, summer, and early fall were devoted to fishing, gathering berries, and preparing for the winter. Many families wandered far over the islands that dotted Puget Sound and the upper-straits waters. The Lummis scattered all over the San Juan Islands in their reef-netting activities, the Makahs went far out to sea to hunt whales, and other tribes spread throughout the region in search of berries, camas roots, and other delicacies of the table. In the summertime there were many large gatherings of people from the various villages. It was a time for large feasts and visiting. Marriages were arranged and business transacted between families of different villages. Summer for the Indians resembled vacation time today in the Pacific Northwest. Everyone tried to get away to a quiet place to relax and engage in frequent celebrations.
This comparison between modern life and the life of the Indians before the coming of the white man is more than apt. One might have characterized the region as being completely suburbanized during the summer because of the variety of fishing sites used by the different families. Fishing stations were hereditary, for the most part, and some tribes appeared to specialize in the catching and preparation of certain species of salmon while others concentrated their efforts on another species. People would even share the lengths of streams, and so sophisticated was their taste that many said they could tell, from one bite of the food, exactly what stream a fish had come from and which group of Indians had prepared it.
Depending upon the type of salmon caught and the weather conditions prevailing, salmon could be prepared in any number of ways. Sometimes it was smoked, other times, with a good dry wind, it was cured by wind-drying. Sun-drying was risky because of the high humidity. The salmon eggs, considered a great winter delicacy, were also dried and smoked.
Fish was not the only food of the people, although it certainly was the major item on the menu. The larger land animals — deer, elk, and bear — were very important. These animals tended to live on the many small prairies and foothills of the Cascades. All the tribes hunted them, particularly in the wintertime. An extensive trade between the inland people and the coastal tribes, extending sometimes across the Cascades to the eastern part of Washington, was based on the exchange of dried or smoked salmon for buffalo, antelope, and other meat delicacies.
Mountain goat meat was considered a treat among many of the tribes, and they were happy to trade their fish for it. Strangely enough, the absolutely best salmon was considered to be that of the Yakimas, who lived across the Cascades on the Columbia. The Puget Sound people, who had more salmon than they knew what to do with, often traveled across the snowy Cascades to trade for salmon that had come up the Columbia to the famous Celilo Falls of the Yakimas. Celilo Falls, unfortunately, is no more. After the Second World War, dams for generating electrical power were built on the Columbia, and the famous fishing site was flooded.
The women and girls gathered shellfish such as clams, oysters, and crabs, the best crabs, of course, being those of Dungeness Bay, which was in the land of the Clallams. They also gathered the camas root, similar to a potato, and a seemingly infinite variety of berries. Years after white settlement, Indian women had at their disposal more than two hundred recipes for preparing and combining food staples such as salmon, berries, and camas roots and other vegetables.
With such a taste for delicacies, it was no wonder that the peoples of the Puget Sound area developed a very extensive trading system. With five species of salmon alone, oil from seals, whales, and dogfish, and a variety of other fish and foods, the trading for various commodities became quite complicated.
The sockeye salmon, for example, did not run in any of the streams on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the area where the Makahs and the Clallams lived. But it did run on the western coast, south of Cape Flattery, in the Ozette River. Thus trade for sockeye developed. The Makahs did not have sufficient cedar of suitable quality for either houses or canoes, so they traded with the Nootkas on Vancouver Island for cedar canoes and planks. What did they use for trading purposes? Whale and seal oil, dried herring roe, which formed a type of caviar, and other products that could be obtained only in the Pacific Ocean and required very large canoes made only by the Nootkas.
Excerpted from Indians of the Pacific Northwest by Vine Deloria Jr.. Copyright © 2012 Vine Deloria Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Fulcrum Publishing.
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