Understanding S’Klallam’s government, culture | Noo-Kayet

No matter the person or place, I am routinely asked about my Tribe and our culture, about our history and life on the reservation today, and how our government operates and why we make the decisions we do.

In my time as chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, I’ve met a number of people from around Kitsap County. No matter the person or place, I am routinely asked about my Tribe and our culture, about our history and life on the reservation today, and how our government operates and why we make the decisions we do.

With this in mind, over the next year, I want to use this column to help answer some of those questions. It’s my hope that not only will this information be interesting, but also serve as way for us to understand one another a little bit better.

The best place to begin is, as they say, at the beginning. Many different Tribes have lived up and down the Olympic Peninsula for thousands of years. Take that in for a moment: thousands of years. For a bit of perspective, the United States of America celebrates its 238th year in 2014.

Prior to non-Native people making their way to the Pacific Northwest, there were many S’Klallam communities throughout the Strait of Juan de Fuca and into the Hood Canal at Port Gamble Bay. Other groups, such as the Twana (Skokomish), Chemakum, and Suquamish, also made use of the lower Hood Canal.

S’Klallam settlements were not stagnant, as families and communities followed a seasonal round of resource harvesting activities that took people across the S’Klallam landscape. People hunted elk in the Olympic Mountatins, harvested fall chum salmon in Hood Canal rivers, and fished for halibut in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

As settlers began to arrive in the area, they did not recognize S’Klallam natural and resource management and land tenure practices. Euro-American ideas of land ownership differed significantly from S’Klallam concepts of ownership, which emphasized stewardship, resource management, and making resources available across community and kinship networks.

In 1853, President Franklin Pierce appointed Isaac Stevens the first governor of the Washington Territory. One of Stevens’ first and most arduous tasks was settling land claims in order to open the territory for settlement. Stevens did this by signing a series of treaties with territory Tribes in 1854 and 1855. These were known as the Stevens Treaties.

S’Klallam, Twana and Chemakum signed the Point No Point Treaty on Jan. 26, 1855. The provisions of the treaty were presented to the affected Tribes in Chinook Jargon, a trade language with just 300 words. It was not nearly adequate enough to communicate such complex topics. Under duress of population loss and the rapidly expanding population of non-Native people, Tribal leaders were persuaded to agree with the terms of the treaty and cede rights to the lands they and their families had lived on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

The Point No Point Treaty promised small areas of land for each of the Tribes to establish reservations, a single payment of $60,000 and, most importantly, the right to harvest fish and shellfish at the “usual and accustomed grounds and stations” and the privilege of hunting and gathering on all open and unclaimed lands.

Over the years, Tribes in Washington state have continuously fought to protect their treaty rights, going so far as to take the State of Washington to federal court. This resulted in the 1974 Boldt decision, which reaffirmed the rights of Washington’s Tribes to harvest and co-manage salmon and “take a fair share of the available fish.” In a later column, I’ll talk more about the importance of these treaty rights — even and especially today! — and the steps that have been taken to protect them.

I’d like to thank you for reading this column and hope you found it informative. If you have any questions or if there are cultural topics you’d like to see explored in future columns, I invite you to email your thoughts to pgstcolumn@gmail.com.

— Jeromy Sullivan is chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe. Contact him at jeromys@pgst.nsn.us.