Known evocatively as the "People of the Water," members of the modern Squaxin Island Tribe reside at seven inlets of southern Puget Sound in Washington. The Squaxin Island Reservation takes up the better part of an island north of Olympia. The tribal headquarters and trade center are located in Kamilche at Little Skookum Inlet, six miles south of Shelton in Mason County.
Squaxin Island is not far from the entrances to the seven inlets. The island -- a former state park -- is uninhabited, but as a part of the reservation today, the tribe retains sole rights to it for recreational activities. The place is regarded as the focal point of their tribal life.
A brief history
The Squaxin Island tribe's ancestors were water-oriented people who flourished along the sound's shores for unrecorded millennia. They subsisted on a cornucopia of fish, berries, roots such as camas, and the woods. Their traditions were organically tied to the generous environment. Salmon and other foods from the rivers and other waters were central to their diet and spiritual rituals. The creatures that sustained them embodied more than nourishment; they provided spiritual sustenance as well. Parts of the western red cedar were rendered into a variety of such products as clothing, rope, intricate baskets and other containers, eating utensils, furnishings and artistic wood carvings.
Squaxin society was three-tiered, comprising (inherited) nobility, middle, and slave classes. One's accumulated wealth served as the criterion of leadership. The potlatch, a lavish social giveaway ceremony, was traditionally held by a host to claim or maintain his place in society. The Squaxin were closely linked to the Nisqually people by similar customs, family connections and native tongue. The Squaxin traditional language was Lushootseed, a Salish variant.
Like numerous first peoples before them, Northwest natives experienced the horrendous effects of the westward movement of thousands of land-hungry white homesteaders and others bent on beginning a new life. In 1854, the seven Squaxin bands, along with other southern Puget Sound tribes, took part in a council with the U.S. Government, in which they negotiated the Medicine Creek Treaty. The nearby Nisqually and Puyallup tribes also inked the document. The negotiations were conducted in Chinook jargon, a paltry trading argot that failed to get across to the Indians the enormity and intricacy of the issues. Thousands of square miles of land were relinquished to the federal government, but tiny Squaxin Island -- four and a half miles long and a half mile wide -- was reserved for the Squaxin.
When the native signatories became fully cognizant of the treaty's implications, they fought to win back a more livable homeland in the Indian War of 1856-57. During the war, the Squaxin were restricted to their island reservation.
Following the conflict, the Squaxin gradually began to depart the island to live near their ancestral villages. The island population had dwindled to 50 by 1862 and by 1959 four permanent residents lived there.
The Squaxin Island Tribe numbered among the first 30 Indian nations in the country to enroll in the federal government's Self Governance Demonstration Project, authorized by Congress in 1988. Currently the tribe sets its own goals and budgets using funds that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) formerly administered.
In November 2002, the Squaxin Island Tribe opened the Home of Sacred Belongings, as well as a museum library and research center, southeast of Kamilche. In 2004, the tribe constructed a tribal center adjacent to the museum. Their shared language, Lushootseed, is now taught in the tribe’s learning center.
The Squaxin Island Tribe today
The 650 enrolled members of Squaxin Island Tribe constitute a General Body that elects a Tribal Council whose seven members serve staggered terms. The council governs the tribe by setting statutes and ordinances for reservation life, making executive decisions, and conferring with outside governmental bodies and organizations for the sake of the tribe. Tribal Council meetings are held minimally twice monthly; members of the General Body can attend. An executive director and deputy director supervise departments that carry out the directives of the Tribal Council and the General Body.
Those departments include:
Health (1) and Human Services,
Tu Ha' Buts Learning Center,
Natural Resources (2),
Some 190 people work in tribal government and services.
Business enterprises of the Squaxin Island Tribe include:
Harstine Oyster Company,
Skookum Creek Tobacco Company,
Kamilche Trading Post, offering groceries, seafood, gifts, and fuel,
Little Creek Casino, with a 92-room hotel, conference facilities, a cafe, salmon stream viewing deck, and transit stops. Approximately 640 persons work in the complex.
The Squaxin Island Indian Tribe is Mason County’s top employer.
The People of the Water hold various regular events, including elder activities, a diabetes support group, Sya? ya? drum practice, youth council and language class, youth arts & crafts, and church programs.
(1) The Squaxin Island Tribal Clinic in Shelton provides primary medical care. The tribe also operates a chemical dependency program at an inpatient treatment facility in Elma. Other programs include dentistry, public health services, health education, nutrition, optometry, emergency medical services, community nursing, home health care, and traditional medicine. The tribe employs a physician's assistant, two nurses, a dentist, and community health representative, among others.
(2) The tribe maintains several natural resource management programs. They also participate in county, state and federal land- and water-use planning. Tribal fish specialists rear nearly two million coho salmon fingerlings a year for release into Puget Sound from the Peale Passage facility. The tribe was one of several partners in the Goldsborough Creek Dam removal project (2001), which opened 25 miles of prime juvenile fish habitat. In concert with regional tribes and the state, the tribe manages oyster, clam and geoduck (a large, edible clam) commercial fisheries. Shellfish division staff members and volunteers plant clam seed in reservation waters to improve production.