Native Americans of Puget Sound

Coast Salish

Current scientific data indicate that Native Americans arrived from Siberia via the Bering Sea land bridge about 12,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age. Native Americans in King County, who are united by a common Lushootseed or Salish language system, believe they were created in this area at the end of an ancient “Myth Age.”

Major groups or tribes of local native peoples include the Suquamish, Duwamish, Nisqually, Snoqualmie, Puyallup, and Muckleshoot (Ilalkoamish, Stuckamish, and Skopamish) tribes. They evolved complex cultural, social, and economic structures, which the invasion of Euro-American settlers in the mid-1800s almost erased, but which continue today as the tribes struggle for their survival, respect, and renewal.

Origins

Archaeologists tell us that the ancestors of today’s Native Americans entered North America on a land bridge from Siberia to Alaska, exposed by lowered sea levels during the last ice age. By this reckoning, the present tribes of Puget Sound arrived here 11,000 or 12,000 years ago, as glaciers receded.

Native American traditions assert that the ancestors of the Nisqually, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, and others were created and placed here at the end of a distant Myth Time, when the earth was prepared for human beings by a powerful supernatural being called dukibel, Xode, or Snoqualm, the Changer. By either account, the original citizens of what is now Western Washington gained their identity by developing a way of life closely fitted to the resources of the maritime and river valley Northwest.

United by Language

All tribes from present-day Olympia to Anacortes, from the Cascade crest to the Kitsap Peninsula originally spoke one or another dialect of the Puget Sound Salish language, known to its speakers as Lushootseed or Whulshootseed. Other related languages in the Salish family were spoken over a large part of the Northwest Coast and in some areas east of the Cascade Mountains. It is important to note that on the coast, Salish is the name of a group of languages, not a tribe.

Early censuses of Native American communities are inexact — information gatherers had little knowledge of the seasonal rounds that moved whole populations within their territories — but conservative estimates state that tens of thousands of people lived in the Puget Sound country in ancient times. Even in the mid-1800s, following devastating waves of smallpox, tuberculosis, and other introduced diseases, every river drainage was home to hundreds if not thousands of indigenous people, and every favorable stretch of saltwater coast held a village of one or more extended families.

It is from the names of these villages and their contiguous waters that the modern names of tribes and reservations came. For example Suquamish are the “people on the clear salt water”; Duwamish are “inside or river people”; and the Snoqualmie are “people of Moon the Transformer” in the valley where legends say the Transformer was brought to earth as a baby. The Muckleshoot Reservation takes its name from a place “where they can see all over,” and includes the Ilalkoamish, Stuckamish, Skopamish and other villages on the Green and White rivers.

The Art of Village Life

Traditional villages were made up of one or more large, rectangular houses with roofs and walls of split cedar boards covering massive post and beam frames carved from cedar logs. Most houses in the Puget Sound area had roofs with a single gentle slope. Tribes south of Vancouver Island did not traditionally carve totem poles, paint designs on their house fronts, or use the bold black and red system of artwork called formline design. A Puget Sound village of 200 years ago would have been impressive, but not as colorful for an arriving visitor as those of the Haida or Tlingit to the north.

Each house was home to an extended family or to groups related by marriage, under the leadership of an individual with enough wealth and accomplishment to be accepted as leader for a house, a village, or a region. One such regional leader, Chief Seattle, lived in a home which stretched more than 600 feet along the shore of Agate Passage, across Puget Sound from the city which bears his name.

These large dwellings had shelves for beds of cattail mats and blankets of wool. Skins extended down each long wall and a row of cooking fires occupied the center of the floor. Roof boards were moved aside to make smoke holes where needed. The houses were also workshops where fishing and hunting gear was constructed and mended, where canoe carvers worked on the beach just outside, and where weavers and basket makers created beautiful clothing, utensils, and artworks from cedar roots, colored bark and grasses, the wool of mountain goats, and the fur of dogs.

It was into this complex society of interrelated villages and families, of resources managed with a light hand, and of economies suited to the products of environment and trade that the first Europeans came into contact with in the late eighteenth century. Despite the effects of new diseases, religions, mores, and technologies introduced by explorers and traders, this traditional culture was largely intact as the first permanent Euro-American settlers began to arrive in the mid-nineteenth century. With the treaties of 1854 and 1855 began a time of enforced change, adaptation, and struggle which continues today.

Sources:
A Time of Gathering, ed. by R. Wright (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999);
Hermann Haeberlin and Erma Gunther, Indians of Puget Sound (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1930);
Eyes of Chief Seattle, Exhibit narrative (Port Madison: Suquamish Museum, 1986);
T. T. Waterman, Notes on the Ethnology of the Indians of Puget Sound (New York: Museum of the American Indian, 1973);
Arthur Ballard, Mythology of Southern Puget Sound (Seattle: University of Washington, 1929; Snoqualmie Valley Historical Museum, 1999);
Maps based on Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, A Guide to the Indian Tribes of the Pacific Northwest (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992)