Native Americans of Puget Sound -- A Brief History of the First People and Their Cultures

  • By Kenneth Greg Watson
  • Posted 6/29/1999
  • Essay 1506
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Major groups or tribes of Native Americans in the Puget Sound region include the Suquamish, Duwamish, Nisqually, Snoqualmie, and Muckleshoot (Ilalkoamish, Stuckamish, and Skopamish). They evolved complex cultural, social, and economic structures, which the invasion of non-Native settlers in the mid-1800s almost erased, but which continue today as the tribes struggle for their survival, respect, and renewal.


Archaeologists believe that the ancestors of today's Native Americans came to North America from Siberia, entering the Puget Sound region as the glaciers of the last ice age receded. Substantial archeological evidence of continuing human habitation in the area from 12,000 years ago indicates that the present tribes of Puget Sound have lived here at least that long, and some discoveries suggest that people were living in the region several thousand years before that.

Native American traditions hold that the ancestors of the Nisqually, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, and others were created and placed here at the end of a distant Myth Time, when the earth was prepared for human beings by a powerful supernatural being called dukibel, Xode, or Snoqualm, the Changer. By either account, the original citizens of what is now Western Washington gained their identity by developing a way of life closely fitted to the resources of the maritime and river valley Northwest.

United by Language

All tribes from present-day Olympia to Anacortes, from the Cascade crest to the Kitsap Peninsula originally spoke one or another dialect of the Puget Sound Salish language, known to its speakers as Lushootseed or Whulshootseed. Other related languages in the Salish family were spoken over a large part of the Northwest Coast and in some areas east of the Cascade Mountains. It is important to note that on the coast, Salish is the name of a group of languages, not a tribe.

Early censuses of Native American communities are inexact -- information gatherers had little knowledge of the seasonal rounds that moved whole populations within their territories -- but conservative estimates state that tens of thousands of people lived in the Puget Sound country in ancient times. Even in the mid-1800s, following devastating waves of smallpox, tuberculosis, and other introduced diseases, every river drainage was home to hundreds if not thousands of indigenous people, and every favorable stretch of saltwater coast held a village of one or more extended families.

It is from the names of these villages and their contiguous waters that the modern names of tribes and reservations came. For example Suquamish are the "people on the clear salt water"; Duwamish are "inside or river people"; and the Snoqualmie are "people of Moon the Transformer" in the valley where legends say the Transformer was brought to earth as a baby. The Muckleshoot Reservation takes its name from a place "where they can see all over," and includes the Ilalkoamish, Stuckamish, Skopamish and other villages on the Green and White rivers.

The Art of Village Life

Traditional villages were made up of one or more large, rectangular houses with roofs and walls of split cedar boards covering massive post and beam frames carved from cedar logs. Most houses in the Puget Sound area had roofs with a single gentle slope. Tribes south of Vancouver Island did not traditionally carve totem poles, paint designs on their house fronts, or use the bold black and red system of artwork called formline design. A Puget Sound village of 200 years ago would have been impressive, but not as colorful for an arriving visitor as those of the Haida or Tlingit to the north.

Each house was home to an extended family or to groups related by marriage, under the leadership of an individual with enough wealth and accomplishment to be accepted as leader for a house, a village, or a region. One such regional leader, si?al or Chief Seattle, lived in a home which stretched more than 600 feet along the shore of Agate Passage, across Puget Sound from the city which bears his name.

These large dwellings had shelves for beds of cattail mats and blankets of wool. Skins extended down each long wall and a row of cooking fires occupied the center of the floor. Roof boards were moved aside to make smoke holes where needed. The houses were also workshops where fishing and hunting gear was constructed and mended, where canoe carvers worked on the beach just outside, and where weavers and basket makers created beautiful clothing, utensils, and artworks from cedar roots, colored bark and grasses, the wool of mountain goats, and the fur of dogs.

Living Lightly on the Land and Sea

During the warm months, individuals and groups came and went from the villages, traveling to gather particular resources at their optimum times. Strips of cedar bark were harvested from huge standing trees in the spring, when it could be pulled away easily for later use in clothing and baskets. Huckleberries were gathered in the high country when they were ripe and ready to pound into cakes for drying. Root foods including bracken fern and camas were dug on prairies kept open by burning. In summer the mountain passes could be easily crossed for trading with friends and relatives to the east, and loaded canoes traveled between rivers and salt water villages. Hunting expeditions pursued elk, deer, seals, bear, ducks, and other prey. Shellfish were harvested on beaches and mud flats.

During the annual runs of the five species of ocean-going salmon native to this area, every able person turned out to help. Within a few weeks, a large part of a village's annual food supply had to be caught, cleaned, smoked or sun-dried, and brought back to the houses to be stored for winter.

Ceremonies and Traditions

The most important uses of the big cedar houses happened after everyone had returned -- after the moon (approximately November) called Sicalwas (shee-chal-wass) "putting paddles away." It was in winter that the most important yet least tangible wealth of traditional Puget Sound -- the ancient legends and ceremonies handed down through generations -- became most manifest.

If a village did not possess a separate structure for ceremonial use, one of the large dwelling houses or al?al? (ahl-ahl) could be cleared of partitions and excess domestic furnishings and converted to a piGidaltx (pee-gwee-dalt-wh), a "smokehouse" or "longhouse" where tribal members, friends, and relatives from other groups could nightly share the dances and songs given to them by their guardian spirits as visible proof of a relationship with the supernatural world. Friends and family would help each dancer by singing along with the songs they recognized, and were themselves helped in their turn. Everyone present could benefit from this sharing of tradition and spiritual power.

These gatherings were also the best times for other cultural "work." The whole community, along with visitors from other villages and watersheds, might be called to witness the joining of two families by marriage, or the confirmation of a family name, handed down through generations, on a young person who had proved worthy of carrying it. Guests were lavishly fed and given gifts according to their wealth and status, agreeing by their presence to be witnesses to the work. Healing ceremonies also required the community's help to provide singers and witnesses.

(It should be noted that "potlatching" per se was a North Coast Native practice and NOT part of the Puget Sound ceremonial repertoire. Potlatch rituals and gatherings allowed participants to secure their rights to particular heraldic, titular, and artistic devices. Some Puget Sound customs resemble potlatches in their hospitality and use of masks and totems, but the term itself does not occur in local speech.)

Major gatherings and events would occur from time to time throughout the winter, but every evening one or more of the elders would provide the experience that gave Puget Sound Native American culture its surest continuity -- the telling of syayahub (syah-yah-hobe) or legends for the education of young people and enjoyment of adults. Through the oral literature of the syayhub, given as short vignettes, epics, or cycles of stories, the culture's wisest members could pass on information about the origin of the world and its inhabitants, about ancient monsters, natural phenomena, and present day species, and about culture and the effects of right and wrong behavior. If a listener thought carefully and applied the teachings of the syayahub, she or he would grow to deserve an honored family name.

It was into this complex society of interrelated villages and families, of resources managed with a light hand, and of economies suited to the products of environment and trade that the first Europeans came into contact with in the late eighteenth century. Despite the effects of new diseases, religions, mores, and technologies introduced by explorers and traders, this traditional culture was largely intact as the first permanent Euro-American settlers began to arrive in the mid-nineteenth century. With the treaties of 1854 and 1855 began a time of enforced change, adaptation, and struggle which continues today.


A Time of Gathering, ed. by R. Wright (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999); Hermann Haeberlin and Erma Gunther, Indians of Puget Sound (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1930); Eyes of Chief Seattle, Exhibit narrative (Port Madison: Suquamish Museum, 1986); T. T. Waterman, Notes on the Ethnology of the Indians of Puget Sound (New York: Museum of the American Indian, 1973); Arthur Ballard, Mythology of Southern Puget Sound (Seattle: University of Washington, 1929; Snoqualmie Valley Historical Museum, 1999); Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, A Guide to the Indian Tribes of the Pacific Northwest (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992); Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Salmon colonize the Puget lowland about 14,900 years ago" (by David B. Williams), (accessed January 14, 2019). Note: This article was updated on January 14, 2019.

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