Thursday, October 1, 2015


Canoe Journey
"For 500 generations they flourished until newcomers came... much was lost; much was devalued, but much was also hidden away in the hearts of the dispossessed...

...Their voices insist upon a hearing and the cumulative wisdom of their long residence in this land offers rich insights to those willing to listen. The challenge now is to find a way to make knowledge of the ancient traditions, the experience of change and the living reality accessible and available..."
                                Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest: An Introduction by David M. Buerge

While we are surrounded by many tribes in the Pacific Northwest, we have no record of them on our small island.  Middens (old dumps for domestic waste consisting of animal bones, human excrement, botanical material, vermin, shells, sherds, lithics, and other artifacts) have been found on other islands, but not here.  In spite of this we heavily "feel" the culture- past and present- of our native brethren. Due to the wealth of the area and the climate, they had an easier life than their relatives in other parts of the country.

While I was still living in CT "Native American" was the politically correct term to use when speaking of the native peoples of our country. Yet when I came back to these Western shores, I found the people themselves used the term- which I grew up with- Indians.  When I asked a native woman, she laughed and said:  oh, those Easterners- so political!  Always dreaming up something".  So in this blog I will use the term still used often in the Pacific NW.

 The Swinomish (our closest tribe- in Anacortes where we catch the ferry to Shaw Island), Tulalip, Lummi, Skagit, Nooksack, Quinault, Hoh, Quileute, and Duwamish, tribes were known to have the most wealth. They lived on the western side of the cascades in Washington. The reason why these tribes were "so rich" was not because they were ornamented with gold or built gold statues, but it was their abundant food, and secure shelter.

The Puget Sound Indian supposedly, by cognition, could tell that there was so much salmon in the water, that they could pass the water by walking on their backs. Their environment was very heterotrophic, meaning there was natural food resources preserved.

Drying Salmon- note cloak made from bark
 The types of berries that were most familiar were blackberries, raspberries, and salmonberries. On Shaw they collected camus- with it small potato-like bulb. In spring the bright blue flowers cover the mesa the monastery sits on.

 In the waters, there were various salmon and other types of fish, such as halibut, flounder, and cod. They ate clams, crabs, seals, sea otters, sea lions, fish, herring eggs, and mussels, shellfish, sea urchins, fungus, and seaweed.

 The men hunted land animals including bear, caribou, deer, elk, and moose. The Nootka/Makah and to a lesser extent the Haida also caught whales. While most tribes lived on the coast during the summer months, when winter came many moved their camps to a more protected area like up a river or inlet.

Salish man- Tulalip tribe

In addition, cedar trees were landmarks to the region. The wood had a wide range of applications. They used it in everything from construction of houses and shaping canoes to carving out crude tools. Clothing such as blankets, toweling, and shoes came from softened cedar bark.

They did not have the methods or level of technology that was present in other parts of the world but they knew enough and were able to make it through the harsher exposure to the elements of nature. They developed a way to safely store food by drying it. Once that process was done, they took a vacation over the winter months, without having to face a renewed struggle in the fall so as to maintain their relatively rich lifestyle.

The Northwest Coastal tribes occasionally gathered together for a potlatch. The person hosting the potlatch gave away as many gifts to his guests as he could. This showed he was wealthy.  These ceremonies could last for days. Singing, dancing, and story-telling were part of the celebration and they wore masks and head dresses for ceremonial purposes.

When I first came to the islands, I attended at potlatch on the Tulalip Reservation. It was an amazing event marking the one year anniversary of a young woman who was killed.  This ceremony was the re-activating of her drums which had been silent that year.  I was given  many gifts- among which is a lovely prayer shawl I still use.  I felt like I had been given a whole department store!

Arriving for the Potlatch
The Northwest Coastal Indians took slaves which were also a sign of wealth. Children were kept close to their camp for fear that they would be stolen by another tribe and become a slave.  While much has changed since those early days, and the wealth of the native peoples is more distributed, the greatness of these people has not changed in our NW.

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