Duwamish-Green Watershed

  • By Cynthia Updegrave
  • Posted 12/31/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20272
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The Duwamish-Green Watershed in King County comprises 492 square miles of forests, meadows, hills, and valleys that have been shaped by environmental forces and generations of human activities. The watershed, in turn, has shaped the communities along its rivers. The ancestors of today's Coast Salish people developed a wide range of practices to facilitate a greater abundance of resources and far-reaching trade and social networks to develop stable communities that could adapt to the region's dynamic environment. When non-Native settlers arrived in the 1850s, they brought new value systems and relationships to the watershed and significantly altered it. Engineering projects rerouted three rivers and two large lakes out of the watershed, straightened and deepened the lower Duwamish River, and built Howard Hanson Dam on the Green River. For the past two centuries the watershed has been in transition as people have altered the environment, adapted to changing circumstances, and sought strategies to sustain the region's natural resources.  

Sculpting the Earth

A long history of interacting tectonic and glacial processes created the Duwamish-Green Watershed. The Cascadia Subduction Zone feeds active volcanoes such as Tahoma/Mount Rainier, and the Puget lowland is crisscrossed with surface faults. Between about 18,000 and 16,500 years ago the Puget Lobe of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet was 3,300 feet thick at Seattle, and as it flowed across the lowland it sculpted troughs now occupied by Puget Sound and its rivers, including the valley of the Duwamish and Green rivers.

Glacial retreat blocked drainage to the north and created large freshwater lakes that drained to the south as ice melted and the land slowly rebounded from the weight of the glacier. Around 14,900 years ago the Puget Lobe retreated past the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. What would become Puget Sound was filled with salt water and stretched unbroken between Elliott Bay and Commencement Bay until repeated lahars (volcanic mudflows) over thousands of years filled in the Duwamish Valley. The massive Osceola mudflow about 5,700 years ago moved the delta seaward 30 miles.  

Five major rivers drained the Duwamish-Green Watershed: the Black, White, Green, Cedar, and Duwamish. The White River, originating on the Winthrop Glacier on Tahoma/Mt. Rainier, flowed north and joined the Green; the Cedar originated in the Cascades above Lake Washington and joined the Black, just below the lake's outlet. The Black and White then came together to form the Duwamish River, which emptied into Elliott Bay. 

The lower river valley is bounded on the north and south by alluvial fans created by sediments deposited as the rivers emerged from the foothills and slowed. The White River alluvial fan, located just south of today's Auburn, diverted part of the flow of the White to the Green River and part to the Puyallup River. To the north, the Cedar River alluvial fan separated Lake Washington from the marine waters of Puget Sound about 5,000 years ago, and as the fan grew in height, the lake level rose behind it.              

Life Returns to the Watershed

The receding ice left behind a cold, steppe-tundra landscape where little grew but the bushy plants eaten by the mastodons, giant sloths, and bison that roamed there. Over time, vegetation evolved with the stimulus of changing climate conditions and developing nutrient cycles. About 13,000 years ago, a forest of lodgepole and white pine (species well-suited to harsh conditions) took root in the sandy soil. True firs and spruces followed, creating an open forest. As the climate warmed by 10,000 years ago, Douglas fir and red alder arrived, along with bracken fern. There is evidence of frequent fires, peaking about 7,000 years ago.             

The ancestors of the Coast Salish people lived in this vastly different place. The earliest archaeological evidence of people in the Puget lowland dates to 12,000 years ago, at the Bear Creek settlement on the Sammamish River. By 8,000 years ago, people were likely living all through the Duwamish-Green Watershed. One archaeological site, a hunting camp at the confluence of the Black and White rivers, may date to 7,000 years ago. Other archaeological evidence shows that people were highly mobile and used a wide variety of resources.

Stories Coast Salish people tell today provide a window into the very distant past when communities were just getting established. At North Wind's Weir on the Duwamish River, 55-million-year-old uplifted bedrock of the Blakely Formation can be seen. An epic story of transformation centers on three main characters associated with three bedrock hills visible along the river. The river was dammed by ice and during a battle between North and South Wind, and the son of South Wind sent uprooted trees into the river to break up the ice. South Wind won, and salmon were free to swim upriver again.

The Changing Forests

As the climate cooled, tree species of the coastal temperate rain forest appeared in the watershed. Douglas fir dominated, with western red cedar in the wetter places and western hemlock on cool, north-facing slopes. Native people burned the lowland forests regularly to maintain prairies and prevent uncontrolled wild fires.

By about 4,000 years ago, western red cedar had evolved into the massive trees used by Native people for longhouses, dugout canoes, and other large structures. By about 1,500 years ago, the Coast Salish people were using a variety of wood-working tools and different types of wood for making houses, canoes, shelters, clothing, vessels, and items used in food preparation and preservation.

The Salmon Return and Adapt

After diverging from Atlantic salmon six million years ago, and through multiple glaciations since, Pacific salmon evolved into the several species familiar today. Beginning about 14,900 years ago, salmon begin to colonize Puget Sound. About 5,000 years ago, a cooler and moister climate and the stabilized shorelines led the salmon to spawn in the upper reaches of the region's rivers. The fish were a conveyor belt for marine-derived nutrients cycled up into the watersheds when the salmon returned to spawn and die, enriching the soils and streams and supporting a diversity of animal species.

The Duwamish-Green Watershed has long been disturbed by climatic and tectonic events.  Warm, moist air from the Pacific Ocean cools and turns to rain as it moves onshore, and when it reaches the Cascades, world-record snowfalls can occur. Warm, winter rainstorms can bring rapid melting, causing landslides and floods that scour streambeds. Volcanic eruptions have instantly liquified glaciers and snow and triggered massive mudslides known as lahars. Extended summer droughts cause low flows in rivers and streams and increase the likelihood of fires. But the salmon have adapted to these unpredictable conditions. Even if a single population is eliminated by some catastrophe, it can be replaced by "strays," which are salmon that do not return to their natal streams.

Settled Human Communities

Between about 5,000 and 3,500 years ago, the landscape generally came to resemble the place we know today, and the human communities that lived there would also seem familiar. There is evidence that people began to move around less as  they developed ways to preserve and store foods. Local populations grew denser and more firmly attached to place.

The Duwamish-Green Watershed villages were made up of family-based households living together in large cedar longhouses. Networks centered on sharing, gifting, and trading -- and strengthened by marriages, feasts, and ceremonies -- wove people together within and across watersheds. These relationships redistributed abundance and buffered the impacts of environmental disturbances in the watershed that varied seasonally and across time. Since time immemorial, creating and nurturing these relationships helped keep the Native world in balance.

Traditional ecological knowledge was developed and adapted over the millennia, shared across generations, and continually tested and improved. In addition to techniques for where and how to gather resources, a positive personal and communal relationship with the watershed is central to this knowledge and is practiced through cultivating, tending, and increasing abundance. For example, burning to maintain prairies allowed for sustainable human population growth by expanding habitat for deer and elk and managing food plants such as camas.

Villages in the Duwamish-Green Watershed were located along the rivers. Smaller groups along the Green River were known collectively as the Skwohp-AHBSH or "fluctuating-river people." The Stoo-KAHBSH people lived at STOOK ("logjam") on the lower White (now Green) River. Those along the Cedar, Black, and Duwamish rivers were collectively referred to as the Doo-AHBSH (Anglicized as Duwamish), which meant "people of the inside." On Elliott Bay near today's Pioneer Square, Dzee-dzee-LAH-letch ("Little Crossing-Over Place") was a very important gathering place for people from the watershed and surrounding vicinity.              

In the watershed, villages were in close enough proximity to allow for easy travel and exchanges between them, and between the lowlands and the mountains. These exchanges created and maintained a diverse food economy, which included carbohydrate-dense roots and berries from lowland meadows, protein-rich deer, elk, and small mammals from the upper watershed, and the fat-rich fish, shellfish, birds, and mammals found in and near the salt water.

Coast Salish calendars kept track of time through cyclical patterns of weather, winds, tides, and activities based on seasonal change. The Lushootseed language remains a living treasury, a record of a long-term relationship to place that contains a wealth of knowledge about the landscape, the waters, landmarks, plants, animals, technologies, and seasonal cycles of the Native people of the watershed.

Travel, Trade, Tradition

Coast Salish people were anchored to permanent winter villages and longhouses as they moved around the watershed, gathering, fishing, hunting, tending, and visiting with other groups. Familial relationships determined where people fished, hunted, and gathered. Some places were also associated with large gatherings, such as huckleberry patches in the Cascades near horse-racing grounds where people from both sides of the mountains came together each year to trade, gamble, and socialize.

The annual round of travel began in the spring as families moved to prairies in the uplands, and along the Duwamish River to places where they could gather new growth. One such place was TSuqálapsub ("High on the Neck"), a prairie near today's Georgetown, where camas was gathered. In the early summer, berries were picked and dried in the prairies and shellfish  gathered and dried on the beaches. In late summer, people came together in camps to catch salmon on the rivers and dry or smoke it for later use. In the fall, in the upper elevations, late-ripening huckleberries  were gathered and elk, bear, mountain goats and other land animals hunted. At Tuqbáli ("Aerial Duck Net Place"), where Boeing Field is today, migrating flocks of waterfowl were captured. Winter was a time to be inside the large longhouses, where families prepared food around the large fires, made and repaired household items, told stories, and held large gatherings and ceremonies.

These seasonal rounds took place in close proximity to water. The word for river in Lushootseed refers to an opening, an open channel that connects waterways to the salt water. To Native people, rivers were and continue to be alive, demanding respect. Elders have indicated that the rivers are thought of as women. Fresh, clean water is integral to Coast Salish spiritual practices, which include cold bathing and sweat lodges. 

Canoes were used to travel to gather resources, for socializing and trade, and, at times, for warfare. There were many canoe forms, including large family canoes for salt-water and extended travel, shovel-nose canoes for river and lake travel and gathering, and racing canoes for sport and gambling.

Trails also were important for travel in the upper watersheds. The uplands occupied a middle ground between coastal groups and plateau peoples from the east side of the Cascade Mountains. Trade and intermarriage strengthened regional trade networks, increased food security, and enabled access to resources from beyond the watershed.

The Newcomers

While the broader Coast Salish community around Puget Sound was not immune from conflict, Coast Salish values, including reciprocity and the expression of wealth through generosity, combined with an acceptance of outsiders to facilitate the exchange of goods and ideas. Early contact with non-Natives in the watershed led to trade and was welcomed. However, with it came epidemics that devastated Coast Salish people, decreasing their population by more than 80 percent.

During this massive disruption caused by disease and loss within families and communities, federal settlement policies and the methods of a market-driven culture were being rapidly introduced into the watershed. The first non-Native people came to stake claims and the first settlements were made on the prairie at High on the Neck (Georgetown). Others started a settlement on the Muckleshoot Prairie in Enumclaw. Property boundaries were surveyed according to the township system, and a pattern of private ownership was overlaid on the landscape. Land in the watershed that had been shaped for millennia by cultural practices based on interrelated reciprocity was now subject to the rules of a market economy.

Settlers built an early economy based on resource extraction -- forestry, mining, and fishing -- which rapidly began to affect the watersheds. They relied on waterways for transportation, so logging began near shorelines, at the mouth of Duwamish and on Lake Washington.

Salmon fishing was concentrated on the lower river and the shorelines, and as salmon returning through the Duwamish River's mouth were caught, the number left to spawn upriver was diminished. Land was plowed for agriculture in the Duwamish Valley, and potatoes, eggs, and poultry were brought to market via the waterways. Livestock grazing was introduced into the Green River Valley and coal was found on the upper Black River in the 1850s. Steamships began plying the rivers in the 1870s, and logjams that had long supported salmon habitat were cleared to allow the vessels to pass.

The Treaties

The Coast Salish people living in the Duwamish-Green Watershed signed two treaties with Territorial Governor Isaac I. Stevens (1818-1862) that ceded land and established reservations, but reserved to the Native people the right to hunt, fish, and gather in their accustomed places. The Treaty of Medicine Creek was signed in December 1854 with the Puyallup, Nisqually, and Squaxin Indians, some of whom lived in the Green River Valley. In January 1855, the Treaty of Point Elliott was negotiated with the Duwamish, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, and other Native groups living between the White and Skagit rivers. Faced with a multiplicity of tribes and bands, Stevens grouped people from around Lake Washington and along the Black and Duwamish rivers into one Duwamish Tribe. Chief Seattle (178?-1866), whose mother was from a White River village and his father from Suquamish, signed the treaty for the Duwamish and Suquamish that created for them the Port Madison Reservation.

Despite treaty guarantees, the growing influx of non-Native people to the region began to displace Native people and villages and to interrupt traditional hunting, gathering, and fishing practices. In the first fatal encounter, Luther Collins (1813-1860) shot Native people gathering camas on the prairie (High on the Neck) that they had used for generations, but which Collins had claimed because it was the best land in the valley for agriculture.        

The Indian Wars and Their Aftermath

By the fall of 1855 conflicts between Native people and settlers had escalated on both sides of the Cascade Mountains. The Native people of the upper Green River villages and the villages of the White and upper Puyallup retreated deeper into the watershed and took part in the conflict. People from villages in the lower watershed were interned on Fox Island, where in 1856 Isaac Stevens agreed to establish a reservation on Muckleshoot Prairie that brought people of different bands from across the upper watershed together into a Muckleshoot Tribe. The executive order creating this reservation was issued in 1857, but did not include all the land Stevens had agreed to at Fox Island. This oversight was not corrected until 1874.

In the 1860s, the city of Seattle passed an ordinance excluding Native people, and residents actively resisted the establishment of a reservation for the Duwamish Tribe, illustrating the city’s focus on exclusion in its efforts to define itself. Longhouses were burned and Native people harassed, but there were Duwamish who did not want to relocate to the Suquamish or Muckleshoot reservations because of their ancestral ties to the river. They instead gathered in villages along the Black River, which would itself disappear some years later. Their descendants established the Duwamish Longhouse in Seattle and continue to seek separate federal recognition.

The treaty rights retained by Native people remained in force, but they were prevented -- if not by law, by practice -- from gathering, hunting, and fishing in their accustomed places. However, Muckleshoot and Duwamish people continued to live and work in the area, and participated in fishing, logging, and agriculture. Harvesting hops and berries on area farms owned by non-Natives became part of their seasonal routines.

Inexorable Exploitation

In the 1880s, the introduction of steam-powered donkey engines and the coming of the railroads dramatically increased the efficiency and pace of logging. The forests and the watershed were reshaped by clear-cutting. Salmon spawning habitat was being destroyed while commercial fisherman were overharvesting. By 1902, decimated runs led to the construction of the first hatchery on the Green River.

In the upper Green River Valley, development followed mining, logging, and railroad operations. Towns such as Lester, Nagrom, and Kanaskat grew up around Northern Pacific Railway operations after 1888, and around sawmills. Others, such as Ravensdale and Black Diamond, developed around coal mines that would operate into the 1930s.

In the lower valley, the Interurban rail line was extended to Renton and Auburn in 1902, opening the valley to development and providing access to markets. Agriculture expanded in the Duwamish Valley, Enumclaw, and the Green River Valley. Dairy farming grew after the Pacific Coast Condensed Milk Company began operations in Kent in 1899.

Changing the Watershed

As agriculture and towns developed, flood control became more important. The White River flowed along the divide between the Duwamish-Green Watershed and the Puyallup River Watershed. By the 1850s, the White flowed primarily north, with a much smaller distributary channel flowing into the Stuck River. Conflict between Pierce and King County farmers over the rivers came to a head in 1906 when a logjam completely diverted the White River into the Stuck River channel. After much debate, the Inter-County River Improvement Commission was formed to build a diversion dam and a debris barrier, straighten and deepen river channels, and reinforce riverbanks.

Similarly, at the north end of the valley engineers developed projects that reworked the watershed's hydrology. They rerouted the Cedar River into Lake Washington in 1911 to prevent flooding in Renton and to create a channel for an industrial waterway. The Green River's volume was reduced by the construction of the Tacoma Headworks Diversion Dam for Tacoma's municipal water system.

In the 1910s, the Army Corps of Engineers built the Lake Washington Ship Canal to allow ships to pass between Puget Sound and Lake Union and Lake Washington. When the Montlake Cut was opened between the lakes and the Ballard Locks began operating in 1916, Lake Washington was lowered about nine feet. This caused the river system to be completely reworked. Lake Washington fell below its former outlet into the Black River, which ceased to exist. In the building of the canal, some sacred places were blasted with dynamite and others filled with dredge spoils. Wetlands were lost and salmon runs disappeared. The lives of the Muckleshoot and Duwamish people of these rivers and lakes were changed forever.

In just a few years the Green/Duwamish River lost 68 percent of its flow with the rerouting of the White, the Cedar, and the Lake Washington/Lake Sammamish basin. The way water moved through the watershed changed further with the channel straightening that created the Duwamish Waterway, primarily completed by 1915. Thousands of acres of Duwamish estuary tidelands were drained, filled, and dredged to support industry and the port.

The Damage Done

Up until the Great Depression, agriculture, logging, and other development continued largely unimpeded. Along the Duwamish Waterway and on Harbor Island, which was formed from dredge spoils, piers jutted out from the shore. With the onset of World War II, industrial areas near Seattle grew exponentially. Boeing built airplane factories on filled wetlands at Renton and along the Duwamish. Other industries also began operating near the river, and the Pacific Car and Foundry Company (PACCAR) expanded its plant at Renton.

During the mid-twentieth century, pollution poured into the river. Municipal sewer systems discharged treated and untreated sewage and industrial effluent carried chemicals and other pollutants. As early as the 1940s, the Washington State Pollution Commission tried to clean up the Green/Duwamish River, but only the formation of the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle (METRO) in 1958 and its development of a regional sewage treatment system began to improve water quality in the basin.

In the 1960s, industrial and residential development began to spread up the Green River Valley following the construction of Howard Hanson Dam in 1962. The former farm towns in the lower valley became suburban communities, with many of their residents commuting into the city for work. 

With the discharges of industrial waste, run-off, and sewage, the Green-Duwamish River became a sink for pollutants instead of the source of biodiversity and food security for the Muckleshoot and Duwamish people it had been for millennia. While development brought great wealth to the non-Native communities, the destruction of these culturally significant places, the exclusion from traditional gathering, hunting and fishing places, and other broken treaty promises undermined Native people's cultural stability.

Affirming and Securing Treaty Rights

During this era, Native activists reasserted their treaty-reserved rights to fish, hunt, and gather in their usual and accustomed places. Members of the Muckleshoot and Duwamish tribes have always required specific places to practice cultural traditions and spiritual beliefs. Their ancestors made many sacrifices in the treaty era to ensure that future generations could have access to traditional foods, medicines, and essential materials. 

By the 1970s the cumulative negative impacts of more than 100 years of intensive resource extraction and industrialization -- pollution, erosion, disappearing resources -- led to a spate of federal laws protecting the environment, including the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act. These built upon the earlier conservation laws that had set aside national forests and national parks.

As fish runs declined in the early twentieth century, state agencies, in violation of the treaties, tried to regulate tribal fishing. Tribal members across the region organized "fish-ins" that often resulted in violent confrontations, arrests, and seizures of fishing gear. After years of conflict and activism, Federal District Court Judge George Boldt (1903-1984) heard United States v. Washington and in a 1974 decision vindicated the tribes' reserved treaty rights, a ruling that was later sustained by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Since the Boldt Decision, agreements and legislation, particularly the Centennial Accord in 1989 and the Muckleshoot Settlement Agreement in 2006, have formalized government-to-government relationships and provided an avenue for tribal governments to collaborate with state, county, and local governments and environmental organizations to begin to repair the damage done to the watersheds and to shift the values and ideals upon which decisions are based. The 1994 listing of Puget Sound Chinook as an endangered species provided an additional impetus to find viable solutions to conflicts between human activities and watershed health.

Access to, management, and preservation of resources and maintenance of water quality in traditional use areas are essential to the perpetuation of traditional food sovereignty and health for Coast Salish people. The treaties were signed with a promise that access to these resources would be protected in perpetuity, and great sacrifices have been made in exchange for that guarantee. In combination with the need to meet treaty obligations, a growing recognition of the challenges of climate change has led government agencies to begin to take the interconnectedness of human health, cultural stability, and environmental health into account in planning. Slowly, the short-term emphasis on economics-based development is shifting to an emphasis on long-term ecosystem health. 


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