Nestled between the rugged mountain peaks of the Olympic Peninsula and the snow-capped volcanoes of the Cascade mountains, the inland sea stretches forth in mystery and enchantment, and clasped within the palm of her hand is a pearl of great beauty; a small island known as Squaxin. Squaxin Island is centered near the entrances to the seven inlets of southern Puget Sound which surround it like the crosspoles of a sacred hoop. This is where our lifeblood begins and flows. This tiny island of sea fog and rain, salmon and cedar, is undaunted by the ebb of time. One with the sea that surrounds her, the pulse of the island is rhythmic and primal; it has become the very soul of the tribe that bears its name.
We are descendants of the maritime people who lived and prospered along the shores of the southernmost inlets of Puget Sound for untold centuries. Because of our strong cultural connection with the water, we are also known as “The ” People of the Water.
Pre-historically, Squaxin Island was a place of gathering. Songs sailed out across the waterways as our ancestors paddled their magnificent cedar canoes on their way to gather, trade, or attend a family potlatch there.
The waterways were our highways, and our people traveled extensively along them, as far north as Vancouver Island and south along the Pacific Coast. As our ancestors traveled by canoe, they listened the elders tell stories that were passed down through many generations and taught important lessons about life.
Our ancestors also traveled the extensive trade routes of the North American continent, taking well-established trails across the Cascades into Yakama Country, the Columbia River Basin and far beyond. One familiar route ran from the Pacific Ocean, up the Chehalis River, into Black Lake and across the Black Hills to Steh-Chass at the head of Budd Inlet and Squi-Aitl at the head of Eld Inlet. Many of today’s highways were built along existing trail routes, worn deep by years of continuous use.
In 1853 the county surrounding the narrow inlet of Big Skookum, now known as Hammersley Inlet, was named Sa-He-Wa-Mish in honor of our people who were living there. However, in 1864 the name was changed to Mason County in honor of Charles Mason, acting Governor in the absence of Isaac Stevens.
On Christmas Day, 1854 the Treaty of Medicine Creek was negotiated in Chinook Jargon, a trade language inadequate to convey the complex issues of treaty making. This treaty, signed on December 26, was the first in Washington Territory. Approximately 600 people attended the negotiations, although it was raining and miserably cold. Out of thousands of square miles encompassing the ceded area of our people, the small island, four and a half miles long and one-half mile wide, was retained as the main area for all of our people to reside. The island was given the name of the Squawksin of Case Inlet, and became known as Squaxin Island.
In our Lushootseed language, Squawksin means “in between,” or “piece of land to cross over to another bay” signifying the location of the village site on the isthmus between Hood Canal and Puget Sound. It is also said to have meant, “split apart.” A legend recounts a force of water entering and creating the bay that inundated the land there.
Along with our people, the neighboring tribes of Nisqually and Puyallup were also signatories to the Treaty of Medicine Creek. The Indian war of 1856-57 erupted after the tribes became fully aware of the terms of this treaty and fought to secure a more suitable landbase. During the war hundreds of Indian people were confined on Squaxin Island which subsequently became the local area Indian agency headquarters. A school, blacksmith station and church were built there.
The Indian agency wanted to make farmers of our people, trying unsuccessfully to force them to settle down in one place and raise crops. However, this was not a productive way of life for people oriented to the rich resources of the sea. When the war ended in 1857, our people resumed their traditional way of life, harvesting berries and roots such as camas during the summer and returning to the salmon runs in the fall.
Gradually our people began to leave the island to take up permanent residence near their original homes. By 1862 the number of island residents had dwindled to 50. With so few tribal members remaining on the island, the Indian agency headquarters was moved to Puyallup. By 1959 only four-year-round residents continued to live on the island.
Those who remained on the island lived in cedar shake houses or in float houses, which they pike-poled from one place to another with the tide and moored in sheltered coves. This provided easy access to their oyster beds. Float houses were often stranded on the beach in the summer months, and afloat during high winter tides.
When the “Indian War” ended, men worked as loggers, and many families earned their living in the hop and berry fields. However, they continued to harvest salmon, smelt, herring, clams, and oysters, and the women made baskets and cedar dolls for sale in Olympia.
An Indian basket-collecting fad created a profitable, although time-intensive, occupation around the turn of the century. Steamer ships drew near to the island each Saturday morning, picking up the Squaxin Island women who stood on floats loaded with their goods to sell in Olympia. Saturday became known as “Indian Day” and was eagerly awaited.
Those who had moved to the mainland would often return to the island for a potlatch with family and friends.
There are no year-round residents on Squaxin Island today, yet it is looked upon by our people as the bond that unites our past, present, and future generations. Squaxin Island is used for fishing, hunting, shellfish gathering, camping, and other activities. Only tribal members are allowed on the island, but permits can be obtained through the tribe’s natural resources department for tribal members to take friends on the island with them.