A picture is worth a thousand words, or so I discovered as I browsed the “American Indians of the Pacific Northwest Collection” — one of the special digital databases compiled by the University of Washington Libraries.
The photos show Coast Salish tribes fishing in dugout cedar canoes, living in temporary encampments along the water, hanging their salmon catch on beams over camp fires to be smoked and cured for a later season, and creating coiled and twined baskets out of split cedar roots. Some of these baskets were so tightly wound they could hold water.
There is a sense of purpose in these images as Native Americans ply the waters, trade with their neighbors or even take time out for gambling on a beach, as shown in a photograph taken around 1884. Gambling was a popular pastime among the tribes, and the bone game, or “slahal,” was played between villages.
It wasn’t long before I was transported back to an era (before these photographs were taken) when Lake Washington was simply HAH-choo or ‘a large lake.’ This was a time when the lake, together with its surroundings, offered an abundance of riches for a healthy and varied diet: wapatoes, cattails, tule, cedar roots, salmon, waterfowl, berries, deer, muskrat, beaver and otter.
The photographs help to explain how the TAHB-tah-byook, a band of the Duwamish tribe, eked out an existence along the lakeshore before the first European-American homesteads were established near what is now downtown Kirkland. We know that they had a significant presence in our area because there is evidence (see coastsalishmap.org) of several longhouses between Yarrow Bay and Juanita Creek.
By the mid-19th century, however, a number of external events were challenging the very survival of tribal culture. The 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott set aside land for five reservations in the Puget Sound region. These were: Lummi, Swinomish, Tulalip, Port Madison and Muckleshoot. It was under this treaty that the Duwamish relinquished 54,000 acres of prime land — land which today includes Bellevue, Mercer Island, Seattle, Renton, Tukwila and other parts of King County.
While the 1862 Homestead Act offered government-subsidized land grants to new settlers, it was perhaps the opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in the early part of the 20th century that forever changed the native way of life on and around Lake Washington. The lowering of the lake had a detrimental impact on the wetlands and on what had, until then, been the main food sources for the tribes. Life as they had known it on HAH-choo had come to an end.
Irene Vlitos-Rowe lives in Kirkland and is contributing history articles on behalf of The Kirkland Heritage Society. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.