Not so many years ago, Native Americans lived on the land where my house now stands.
The Coastal Salish tribes spread up and down the Puget Sound, along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and up into the Strait of Georgia to the north. Settling near the ever-present coast, the people thanked the land for the bountiful food that sustained them: shellfish, berries, roots and greens, and of course, the salmon. The majestic cedar tree provided housing, boats for fishing, clothing, baskets, mats, and most every other essential of daily life. The Natives lived in abundance and peace, sharing a common language called Lashootseed, living communally in longhouses, and teaching their younger generations through songs and stories.
That life changed forever in 1855 with the Treaty of Point Elliot. The United States government laid claim to the lands around Puget Sound and backed the tribes onto reservations. Along with the presiding government dignitaries, Chief Seattle and a couple dozen other tribal leaders signed the documents with an X, and that was that.
Point Elliot lies in the heart of Mukilteo. The treaty that robbed the Coastal Salish of their home was signed a few miles from my home. The natives who lived here in Mukilteo, the Snoqualmie Tribe, were moved to the Tulalip Reservation about twenty miles north of here, along with a handful of other local tribes. They live there to this day.
Look, I'll be honest. I'm completely ashamed at the way my ancestors, my countrymen, treated our native people. When I first learned about treaties and reservations in grade school, I couldn't believe what I was hearing.I felt sick to my stomach to think how the United States set out to systematically obliterate the culture of these people, without ever taking the time to learn from them or even understand them.
So when my fourth-born proposed that we pay a visit to the Tulalip Tribes' Hibulb Cultural Center, the old familiar queasiness rushed to my gut. I dreaded the stories I would encounter there, the ugly truths about my people. But after a bit more thought, I decided that the best way to show my respect to the local natives, who since time began guarded the place that would become my home, would be to learn more about them.
So. Last Friday, off we went.
^ Sitting under the green spires of evergreens and alongside a healthy creek, the Cultural Center looks quite at home in nature. Native plants and curving walkways made me feel connected to the earth even as I walked in from the parking lot, and I felt like I was starting off on the right foot.
^ The cedar tree is central to the Costal Salish tribes' way of life, and is well represented at the Cultural Center. For starters, much of the building's exterior is covered in gorgeous cedar planks. Just like my roof at home.
^ The heart of the Cultural Center, just as it was in the Natives' original way of life, is the longhouse. This replica showcases the traditional construction of solid cedar. Every inch of the ceiling, walls, framing, and seating are fragrant, gorgeous, glowing cedar. I found it difficult to capture the spirit of the long house through my camera lens, especially while trying to edit out the modern-day additions of speakers, spotlights, and projectors. Even quiet and empty, the room rang with high spirits.
^ When the U.S. government gained the upper hand over the tribes, they outlawed the long house. Existing structures on ceded lands were demolished; no new ones could be built on reservation land. Well. Correction. None were built until 1915, when a forward-thinking Native named William Shelton suggested to the US powers that perhaps the Tulalip Tribes might be allowed to build a long house in order to properly celebrate the upcoming sixty-year anniversary of the Point Elliot Treaty. He was granted permission. Clever man.
If I've got the story straight, Mr. Shelton constructed much of that first longhouse himself, and lovingly carved four cedar poles to adorn the room. The original structure is gone now, but his poles live on in the Cultural Center's longhouse and I was thrilled to see them.
^ Long boats, another key feature of Coastal Salish life and gift from the cedar tree, line the hallway that runs through the Cultural Center. I could hear the waves lapping at the side of the hull and see the fish flapping in the bottom of the vessel as the traps were emptied to be carried back to camp.
^ We spent hours poring over the exhibits. I loved the visual displays that focused on two central elements of the tribes' pre-contact lives: the salmon and the cedar. I was also charmed by this photo of Shelton's daughter, Harriette Shelton Dover, dressed in traditional clothing and standing by one of her father's handcarved poles, looking at a 1938 copy of Life magazine featuring actress Carole Lombard on the cover.
At the other end of the spectrum, I was disturbed to learn about how the U.S. government forced the native children into boarding schools and used that institution to break the family unit and destroy the culture. They almost succeeded.
The actual Treaty of Point Elliot is also on display, on loan from the National Archives. Protected by a framed case and a thick layer of glass, the words of the treaty aren't legible but the signatures are. All the anger and anguish I've ever felt about the injustices to our native people came to a boiling point as I stood and examined the names of the Native leaders who made their mark in good faith, and the government officials who surely knew that they were making promises that would not be kept. To think this monstrous moment took place at my hometown beach, a place that I associate with fun and freedom and the glory of my charmed life, well, that really makes me sad.
But as my daughter and I finally left the Cultural Center and walked back toward the parking lot, my mood softened. I hadn't noticed it when we arrived, but towering over my car was a massive cedar tree. Still a youngster by coastal standards, this tree is the embodiment of everything that the Tulalip Tribes, and my very own Snohomish Tribe, stood for, a proud and self-sustaining symbol of their pre-contact way of life.
The U.S. government stripped the Natives of their land, and tried to take away their culture, their identiy, their traditions, their language, their dignity.
But just like the mighty cedar, I'm glad to say that the Tulalip Tribes are still standing tall.