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Thursday, August 21, 2014


Artwork by Shaun Peterson

I am proud that my ancestors were among the earliest pioneers to settle on Vashon Island in Puget Sound, literally camping under a gigantic fallen tree until they could build a house, but now I'm reassessing the significance of their bold adventure in light of a new exhibit at the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association's Museum. The truth is, other people's ancestors precede mine by thousands of years. Yes, thousands. I grew up on the island as the fifth generation of my family there and am learning from this exhibit, called "Vashon Island's Native People: Navigating Seas of Change," running now through March 15, 2015. The co-curators are Laurie Tucker and Rayna Holtz.

Although my relatives were among the first Caucasians to establish themselves on Vashon, a group of Native Americans called the "sxwobabc"—meaning "swift water people," part of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians—had already been on the island for so long that my family's presence occurred in what is the equivalent of the last few seconds on the time continuum of human habitation in that place of shadowy forests, meadows, and driftwood strew beaches. In their carved cedar canoes, they glided over the waters between their own villages and others in nearby places that would come to be called Gig Harbor and Commencement Bay. You can read more about the sxwobabc people Vashon History.

Ghosts must walk the beach on Quartermaster Harbor. In the same place where my ancestors first stepped ashore in 1880, the original inhabitants once lived in thriving villages and built a longhouse. During my childhood, I knew some Native Americans had lived on the island, and a few still did, blending into the background of our small town society, but I had no concept of the extent or significance of the native settlements there. 

Lucy Gerand digging clams in Quartermaster Harbor — photo courtesy of VMIHA
A baby girl born in that longhouse on Quartermaster Harbor, in 1843, grew up to be Lucy Slagham Gerand. So what happened her and to the other native residents of Vashon Island who preceded her? By the time my relatives arrived, rather late in the era of western expansion, the inevitable clash of vastly different cultures had already taken its toll on the native people. Diseases to which they had no resistance ravaged the population, and the rapid pace of white settlement saw them displaced and sent to live on reservations, all within the short span of one generation. 

As a nine-year-old, Lucy went to the mainland with her parents to witness the signing of a misleading treaty in 1854. It manipulated the Puyallup Tribe into giving up valuable land and set in motion a future that would bring a century or more of prejudice, discrimination, and hardship before they would thrive again.  Eventually, as a grown woman, she moved back to Vashon with her husband, John Slagham. The pioneers all knew and remembered her well, which means my own family members did too. In 1918, she told an anthropologist the names the sxwobabc gave to places on the island, and later, in 1927, in a U.S. Court of Claims, she further described the island villages she remembered from her childhood and provided more details of daily life. If not for this one person, we would all have remained ignorant, as ignorant as even the island's first white historian apparently was.

I grew up in an era where ideas of our country's history were still influenced by the concept of Manifest Destiny. It is chilling to go even farther back in time and look at evidence of prevailing attitudes in the past. A book published in 1935 titled "History of Vashon-Maury Islands," by O.S. Van Olinda includes the following incorrect and particularly disturbing statements: 

"The first residents of the island were, of course, Indians, but they cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called 'settlers,' because they did not settle. They wandered about from place to place, living where the living was easiest, on the game, fish, clams and wild berries and roots. They did no farming and tended no flocks. The did nothing to better their own condition. The Puget Sound Indian, in fact, is classed, even by other Indian tribes, as the about the lowest form of human existence." 

In other words, a society living simply and in harmony with nature—in a place that happened to offer a mild climate and so much natural abundance—was scorned by many of the white newcomers, even though that culture was actually ancient and complex, richly spiritual, and infused everyday life and everyday objects with art. It was seen as somehow lazy and suspect to have a culture not built on the aggressive struggle required of the pioneers. The exploitation of resources and dominance over the land and every living thing on it were seen by them as both rights and virtues, all part of a completely different way of viewing the relationship of humans to their environment. 

My ancestors were good people, and I am proud of their boldness, vision, hard work, and the community they helped to build. They did not personally displace the native population, and I know enough about them to know they would have treated all people kindly. Yet, as one who has always considered myself a "native" of the island, even though I don't live there now, I want to pay homage to the true natives whose lives were so harshly impacted by the earlier invasion of people who looked a lot like me. Although Native Americans still face challenges, the Puyallup Tribe is now prospering. You can learn more about their culture and that of Vashon's first residents through this outstanding exhibit. 

The museum is easy to find. From ferry terminals on either the north or south ends of the island, just take the main road to the one blinking traffic light in the village of Vashon and turn west onto Bank Road SW. On the next block, on the south side of the street, you'll see a little yellow former church building with the number 10105, at and that's it. If you want a map and better directions, click here.

Vashom-Maury Island Heritage Museum

The museum has also scheduled a presentation on September 13, 2014 by notable Native American artist and recognized expert on South Coast Salish Design Shaun Peterson, whose native name is Qwalsius. Thanks to a grant from 4-Culture, the VMIHA commission him to create the sculpture seen on the poster above, made of red and yellow cedar, steel, and glass, celebrating the ties between the Puyallup Tribe and Vashon Island. According to co-curator Laurie Tucker, "He'll be speaking about the differences between southern and northern Coast Salish art, and about Puyallup Tribe culture. He'll show photos of his work, which includes many public installations."

Shaun Peterson with his son Kai, with sculpture, on opening night — photo courtesy of VMIHA

Laurie also had this to say about the exhibit: "Scott Jones and Yvonne Lever have worked in museums for many years in various capacities, and we were very fortunate to have their help with the design and installation. We also met monthly with Brandon Reynon, who is an archaeologist with the Puyallup Tribe's Historic Preservation Department. He did a lot to guide our storyline, provided photos from the Tribe's collections, made corrections and answered our many questions with grace and patience. 

Sandra Noel did graphic design work, producing a wonderful 'Seasonal Round' wheel with her drawings illustrating the seasonal activities of native people, before contact with Europeans. My sister, Lissa Mayer, spent three very long days helping with the installation. Many others helped with construction, painting the gallery, building display furniture, proof-reading, opening night festivities, much help!

Our husbands and children also helped a lot, both with support during all of the hard work and time spent planning, and with actual work during the gallery preparation and installation of the exhibit."

Her co-curator, Rayna Holtz, added: "Brandon Reynon's assistant, Nicole Barandon, has been especially warm and helpful to us in planning and publicizing the Karen Reed weaving program.  And we deeply appreciate the response of Teresa Harvey, a teacher at Chief Leschi School, who answered our invitation to celebrate the exhibit opening weekend by bringing a troupe of Chief Leschi Song and Dance students, who performed traditional dances on the grass by the Vashon Library and then toured the exhibit."

All contacts with members of the Puyallup Tribe have helped us shape this exhibit to tell the stories of their ancestors more accurately and respectfully."

After so many people have worked so hard to bring us this wonderful exhibit, wouldn't you like to see it? Of course you would. Here is all you need:

Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association
10105 Bank Road SW
PO Box 723
Vashon Island, Washington 98070

The Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association thanks the sponsors who have made this exhibit possible, including 4Culture, Puget Sound Energy, DIG, Beth de Groen, Rick’s Diagnostic & Repair Service, The Hardware Store, John L. Scott Real Estate, and the Northwest School of Animal Massage. The exhibit will close March 15, 2015. For more information, go to .

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for this look back into the rich culture of the Northwest past.

Kathy Covell said...

I wish I lived near enough to come experience this exhibit! Sounds awesome.

Anonymous said...

Candy, thank you for this posting and information. I greatly appreciate your writing and sentiments. I'll try to get over to the island to see this exhibit. Patty Starkovich