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"Oh God, here comes Esther Ross." Such was the greeting she received from members of the U.S. Congress during her repeated trips to the Capitol on behalf of Stillaguamish Indians. Tenacious and passionate, Esther Ross’s refusal to abandon her cause resulted in federal recognition of the Stillaguamish Tribe in 1976. Her efforts on behalf of Pacific Northwest Indians at federal, state, and local levels led not only to the rebirth of the Stillaguamish but also to policy reforms affecting all Indian tribes.

In this rare, in-depth portrait of a contemporary American Indian woman, Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown document Ross’s life and achievements. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Stillaguamish tribe, located on the Puget Sound in Washington State, had all but disappeared. With no organization or system of communication, tribal members dispersed. Desperate for help, surviving members asked Ross, a young, well-educated descendant of Stillaguamish and Norwegian heritage, to assist them in suing for lost land and government services. For fifty years, she waged a persistent campaign, largely self-staffed and self-funded. Despite personal problems, cultural barriers, and reluctance among some tribal members, Ross succeeded, but she was eventually forced from tribal leadership.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806133430
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 11/01/2001
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Robert H. Ruby was bothphysician and independent scholar. Along with John A. Brown, hewas coauthor of numerous books, including Indians of the Pacific Northwest: A History.

John A. Brown was Professor Emeritus of History at Wenatchee Valley College, Washington. He is coauthor of numerous books, including Indians of the Pacific Northwest: A History.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The California Years

On September 2, 1904, Angelina (Little Angel) and Christian Voreg Johnson welcomed a newborn girl into their Oakland home. In the hours after giving birth, Angelina turned her gaze from the child to the clear night sky. From its solitary bright star, she took the name for her baby girl—Morning Star. She had no way of knowing that the baby's celestial name would presage a most unusual and noteworthy life.

    The child would later bear the Native American name, Hussa-ud. Her Christian name, Esther Ruth, reflects her parents' faith. Although Angelina had been baptized a Roman Catholic, she and her husband were members of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. In fact, Chris Johnson was a lay minister in the church.

    As the infant grew, Angelina often took Esther to visit her family's two-story white frame house, called "The Homestead," near Hayward, California. Much of Angelina's past, however, lay to the north, near Stanwood, Washington, where she had been born in 1874, the fourth child of an Indian mother Betsey (or Betsy), who was herself the daughter of Chief Chaddus, an influential leader of the Stillaguamish Indians. On November 25, 1877, Betsey married Angelina's father, Joao da Silveira, who was born in 1838 on the Vashon Grand Portugal Flores Island. When but nineteen years old, Silveira severed all ties with his family and hired on as a ship's deckhand, coming in 1860 to Stanwood (originally Centerville) in Washington Territory. He then worked in a mill at nearby Utsaladdy. Before long, his Norwegian neighbors had changed his name to Portuguese John, or John Silva. In 1882, when Angelina was eight, Betsey died and was buried east of Stanwood on a gently sloping knoll. Today an asphalt county road covers her grave. In 1892, John Silva moved to a Portuguese community near Hayward, California, with his second wife, Mary, a white woman, taking up residence in the house that Angelina would call home, even after her father's death in May of 1907.

    Esther knew more of her mother's past than she did that of her father, Chris Johnson. She did know that he was born in Christiania, Norway, November 1, 1863, and, like many of his countrymen, was related to royalty. Esther was never close to her father, though she knew him to be a day laborer and an ardent church worker. At age nine, in January of 1914, she attended his funeral, where Adventist and Presbyterian ministers eulogized him as a "kind loving husband and father, a good neighbor and practical Christian." Looking at him in his casket, Esther could conjure few memories of this "kind loving ... father," and in later life she rarely spoke of him.

    As time went on, Esther and her mother visited the Hayward home ever less frequently. Instead, they more often traveled north to visit relatives in Washington State. Somehow the death of Esther's father had freed Angelina to return to her Indian roots. She shared with her daughter stories of the noble Stillaguamish, of the white men who had come to the Stillaguamish Valley, burning the Natives' houses and driving them from their lands not only by fire, but also with threats, lies, and whiskey. Angelina told Esther how the Stillaguamish had gravitated to white settlements in nearby towns such as Silvana (named for John Silva), Florence, Trafton, and Arlington. Far removed from aboriginal times, the remaining Stillaguamish now lived like Angelina and Esther in a modern world.

    Finding it difficult to raise Esther on her dressmaker's income, Angelina accepted a proposal of marriage from Oscar George Reid, a large, handsome man, a native of Canada who had immigrated to the United States in 1890. Angelina and Reid were married in September of 1915, and Esther immediately bonded with her stepfather, describing his demeanor as "touching." She loved him deeply, more so than she had ever loved her own father, and she often used his name on official documents.

    As a child, Esther was inquisitive and intelligent. In 1921, after graduating from an Oakland high school, she attended a private school for the next year and a half, training to become a schoolteacher. During this time she also did secretarial work for a Bay Area newspaper. In a short autobiography written years later, she summarized her school and work experience during her California years: "I attended grade ... schools," she wrote, "high schools, church schools, business college—and took [a nursing] course. When ready to graduate, ... I [found I] could not stand blood. I left [and became a] newspaper reporter. I helped my mother in her dressmaking shop.... We ran hotel apts in 1925, [but the next year I] gave up my career to come to Wash[ington] with my mother because the relatives wanted me to help them in their Indian affairs."

    In high school, Esther had experienced the cruelty of racial bigotry. Before her Indian heritage was known, she was treated as one of the crowd, but once it was known, she was teased unmercifully. Her self-esteem was crushed. Pondering what it meant to be Indian, she was further deflated to learn that there was no Stillaguamish tribe as such. Her grandmother's people had ceased to exist. There seemed no one to turn to, no one to answer her questions.

    Esther's next disappointment would turn her world upside down. Her stepfather suddenly deserted her and her mother. As a salesman, Oscar Reid was frequently out on the road. In September 1922, suffering a recurrence of carbuncles on the back of his neck, he was laid up for nearly three weeks in Eureka, California. On September 15 he wired Angelina twenty dollars by telegram and wrote her that he was scheduled to enter the county hospital the next day for surgery on his neck. He advised her that he expected to return to work within a few days and would send her more money at that time.

    That was the last communication Angelina ever had from Reid. As time passed and her attempts to locate him proved futile, she began to fear that he had suffered a fatal accident. She wrote Oscar Swanson, coroner and public administrator of Humboldt County in Eureka, California, asking if there was any record of Reid's death. Swanson replied that he had no such record. Angelina then wrote the sheriff of Humboldt County, A. A. Ross, who replied that Oscar Reid had entered the county hospital for treatment of a carbuncle but had left no forwarding address when he departed. Returning the photos Angelina had sent, the sheriff told her that Reid had reportedly left the county. Still unsatisfied, Angelina checked with the California State Division of Motor Vehicles, which responded that Reid had not yet transferred ownership of his Ford to another person. For years to come, Esther would be all but obsessed by the search for her missing stepfather and uncovering the mason for his abandonment of her and her mother.

    At this time, Esther was working as a bookkeeper. Somehow she met and began dating Fletcher Valentine Carlton, a charming young man with a measure of Cherokee blood. He was a streetcar conductor, and he spent money generously on Esther. She was not so much intrigued with Carlton as with the train passes he could provide for travel to any destination. In turn, he was fascinated by her beauty. In time, Esther became pregnant. The birth certificate of the child who was delivered on April 22, 1925, carried the notation: "Mother refuses to reveal name of father of their child." Esther named the baby Margaret Ruth and gave her her own surname, Johnson.

    Though he had not fathered her child, Carlton continued to pursue Esther. Angelina tried to discourage the relationship, but Carlton was persuasive. He promised Esther a free excursion ticket to Washington but only if she was his wife. Esther capitulated, and they were married on February 5, 1926, in San Francisco.

    In the meantime, Angelina was dealing with serious family matters. When her stepmother, Mary Silva, died December 22, 1922, Angelina expected to receive her father's property. Her half-brother was dead as were her two full brothers and a sister in Washington State. This left Angelina with two siblings, both of them adopted as children by Mary and John Silva—Frank in Washington State and Lulu, a homeless girl the couple had taken in. Lulu still lived on the Hayward homestead. Since, at the time of her stepmother's death, Angelina was settled in with Oscar Reid in their suburban Elmhurst-Oakland home, she had no immediate plans to move into the Hayward house and therefore had let Lulu live in it until the Silva estate was probated in 1925. It was then that Lulu produced a document willing the property to herself. After inquiring, Angelina concluded that Lulu had forged the signature on Mary's will. Esther agreed, recalling a family story frequently told that now took on new meaning. When John Silva was lying in his casket at the funeral home in 1907, Mary had reportedly drawn her hand across his forehead in a loving gesture. With that, a few hairs of his head had come loose and a faint streak of what Mary thought was blood had appeared under the skin where her hand had passed. It made Mary believe that her husband had been poisoned. Only now, in recalling that story, did Angelina and Esther think that Lulu may have poisoned Silva.

    Seeking to prove her case, Angelina secured a number of affidavits from those who knew the family well enough to declare that Silva had intended the property to go to her instead of Lulu. Angelina also sought out a Dora Peterson, who had witnessed the signing of the deed giving Angelina the property.

    These developments, in addition to Angelina's desire for tribal identity, reinforced her resolve to move north. When some Stillaguamish and other Indians of the Puget Sound area submitted a claim to Congress for loss of lands and other natural resources, Angelina joined the suit. They contended that a recalcitrant American government had failed to fulfill its obligations under the Treaty of Point Elliott of 1855. Although for a time Esther was mildly interested in the claims issue, she learned of it only through her mother's contact with a Washington State attorney working for tribes of the Medicine Creek treaty (December 26, 1854), the Point Elliott treaty (January 22, 1855), and Point No Point Treaty (January 26, 1855)—and for five nontreaty tribes.

    Angelina urged Esther to move north with her. Though Esther was still deeply involved in trying to find her stepfather, she decided to join her mother in Washington. Weary and emotionally drained from her legal battles with Lulu, Angelina moved in with relatives in Stanwood. Esther took baby Ruth to Seattle, where she was soon joined by Carlton. However, it would not be long before Esther would leave Carlton and, taking Ruth, follow her mother to Stanwood. There, Angelina's attorney wrote her from Oakland that he hoped she got enough from the expected court battle over the Hayward property that she would "not have to suffer or go hungry or have to depend upon charity from uncharitable people such as you did in this city."

    Esther's transition from California to Washington would have been more difficult if her people, the Stillaguamish, had not already been largely acculturated and assimilated within the white community. Discovering that the tribe lacked an identity, just as she herself did, Esther set out to uncover her identity—and with it her Indian heritage before it faded from everyone's memory.

Excerpted from Esther Ross, Stillaguamish Champion by Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown. Copyright © 2001 by University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsix
Foreword, by LaDonna Harrisxi
Introduction, by Alan Stay and Jay Millerxv
List of Abbreviations and Acronyms2
1. The California Years3
2. Stillaguamish: The Land and the People13
3. The Stillaguamish: A Tribe Reborn23
4. Duality: Tribal and Domestic Affairs26
5. The Nomadic Years33
6. Claims: Land Losses and Family Losses43
7. Fish Wars: The Courts and the Rivers58
8. Esther Meets the Rebel General64
9. The Poor People's Campaign74
10. War Cry along the Stilly79
11. Legacy of the Dead, Land Base for the Living87
12. Organization, Disorganization, and Militancy95
13. Mrs. Ross Goes toWashington—Again103
14. Half the Salmon: The Boldt Case109
15. The Boldt Court: The Fallout124
16. The Push for Recognition136
17. The Chief and the Wagon Train145
18. While Waiting for Recognition157
19. The Case of the Flying Fish166
20. The Wait Goes On170
21. A Celebration at Muckleshoot Hall180
22. Recognition Brings More Troubles185
23. Calling the Roll: A Troublesome Task198
24. A War of Words and Wills208
25. Stratagems for Leadership216
26. Exit and Exile226
27. Debility and Denouement235
28. Epilogue and Retrospect246

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