The people and their land
The Salish language
speakers include the Northern Lushootseed dialect spoken by the Samish, Sauk-Suiattle, Stillaguamish, Tulalip, Snohomish, Skagit and Swinomish —in
a region which extended from about present day Marysville to just south of
Bellingham. Southern Lushootseed is spoken by the Snoqualmie, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Duwamish,
There was extensive
contact between peoples of the entire region and with peoples of the other side
The Puget Sound region
lies in a broad, hilly, lake-studded trench between the Olympic and
Native life before the arrival of Euro-Americans revolved around a social organization based on house groupings within a village. Each village had one or more cedar plank houses containing extended families. Villages were linked to others through intermarriage; the wife usually went to live at the husband’s village. Society was divided into upper class, lower class and slaves. While there was little political organization, the highest-ranking male would assume the role of ceremonial leader.
Ceremonies and feasts occurred (and still do) for a number of reasons: to mark the coming of age of males and females, bestowing an ancestral name, at the time of marriage, and to attend to the dead. Because it was believed that each person had a life soul, it was a grave matter when a ritualist or Native doctor was called in to cure soul loss. Guardian spirits, the personal helper of a man or woman who had quested for such protection, were communally honored with songs and dances during the winter months. At the winter dance gatherings (which are intertribal) other business could be enacted as well, such as the passing down of family “heirlooms” (in the form of artworks, names, songs, etc.), the ritual cleansing of someone going through difficult times, or the “payback” from a spirit dancer to those who supported his or her initiation. In all cases, the ceremonies themselves are accompanied by feasting and gift-giving to acknowledge the importance of the visitors’ role as witnesses to the events.
Important knowledge about all matters surrounding the past, present and future were transmitted via songs, stories and speeches, what we call “oral traditions.” [The terms story, myth or legend can be used synonymously, keeping in mind that there were many categories of these]. Unlike Euro-American culture that values objects or things as heirlooms, Puget Sound Native culture considered oral traditions its treasures and its wealth.
For some Puget Salish groups, it is believed that the song is the most primal of those traditions, and like the first cry of the newborn, is a linkage to a powerful primordial state. The song of the guardian spirit dancer invokes this elemental connection to the spirit world. Other types of songs were sung for social occasions or personal pleasure, such as welcome songs, table songs, canoe paddling songs, work songs, love songs and lullabies.
Origin stories are among the most cherished tribal possessions. They take place during a long-ago mythical age when beings had both human and animal qualities. This age came to an end with the coming of the Transformer (also called the Changer) who separated animals from humans and gave humans the rudiments of culture. Other types of myths tell of the origin of specific families and their ancestral villages and include references to still- recognizable landforms. Still other stories or legends present the histories of these specific tribes, and the important individuals and events that ensued over the ages, like our history books. Some origin stories and histories are epic in length and breadth, and would be told over the course of several days. The responsibility of remembering and preserving these was entrusted to tribal historians who kept all the stories within their memories. In addition, there are stories that impart knowledge about ethics, health and hygiene, proper behavior, ceremonial activities, and cultural philosophy. While there are individuals who were well-known for their story telling abilities, any adult could tell stories to their own children, within a larger social setting and, today, to large groups of non-Native people. However, there are restrictions about what stories can be told, and by whom, since some are considered private property. Bruce subiyay Miller has said that as a boy he would relish the visit of an elderly relative, arriving with their featherbed rolled up under their arm, coming to stay during the winter and tell stories by the firelight.
Native oratory and speech making is among the most eloquent of all the oral traditions, with some sought-after speakers being called upon to represent the host family during ceremonial activities. In general, speeches are not long soliloquies but rather carefully parsed and paced words that come from the heart. The best orators deliver the message directly, and with gestures and body movements that focus audience attention.
The prehistory of the
When one observes Native
culture today, it is remarkable that beliefs and practices have endured the
efforts to eradicate nearly all aspects of Native life. Two hundred years ago
the ancestors of today’s Salish artists were carving monumental cedar house
posts with images that made reference to the social and religious status of the
families who lived within the house—their mythic beginnings, ancestral
histories, spirit associations and ritual privileges. Ceremonial regalia, in
the forms of masks, rattles, staffs and other special pieces, were visual
manifestations of ideological and cosmological beliefs. At the same time,
Salish women who specialized in the weaving of baskets and robes were transforming
roots, grasses, bark and mountain goat wool into items of breathtaking richness
and tangible wealth. The weavers’ penultimate skills and originality provided
garments that protected new dance initiates, that formed marriage dowries for
the high-ranking class, and that provided surplus wealth for the potlatch host
to give as gifts, thus enlarging the family’s prestige for the duration of
their lives and beyond. (A good source for art images and explanation is Robin
Wright, ed. A Time of Gathering: Native Heritage in
With the coming of the
first outsiders, in 1792 when Captain George Vancouver entered the Puget Sound
Beginning in the 1870s, Native
children were sent to boarding schools in
There is no word for “art” in the Salish language but the Lushootseed word xal (“to mark”) expresses the feeling of making a mark—of altering, changing or transforming what merely exists into something of sublime beauty and meaning. Some artists have said that the impetus “to make a mark” comes from the spirit and that they have to keep an open door to what the spirit wants them to share with the world. That is not to say that artists are merely agents of a higher power; their own ingenuity can be felt in the form of the work, in its contours, colors, designs, and in its overall expressive power.
Carvings and weavings were not experienced on their own in the past, and are not today. They are part of an ordered and comprehensive cultural totality, with enmeshed political, social, economic, and spiritual aspects. Visual arts are but one component of a web of creative expression that also includes oratory, dancing, singing and drama. One can certainly lament what has changed— and indeed, been lost—within the last two hundred years but the recent revivals of language, storytelling, canoe-making, carving and weaving, signal that this is indeed a time of rejuvenation.