spacious meadows adorned with clumps of trees, among them
the ancient oak, with a girth of four to six feet. Deer
grazing in the meadows are plentiful, and the three-foot
high grass sways in the breeze. Salmon runs thick in the
waters and in the summer there are berries and other food
waiting to be plucked. In the spring, the prairies are filled
with delicate blue lilies, the native camas. To the Skagits
this was Tschakolecy, land of abundance, or as it's known
today, Whidbey Island.
Americans on Whidbey Island had a rich culture and advanced
civilization long before the white men came. They harvested
fish, shellfish, berries, nuts and roots and developed techniques
for storing food through the winter. They cultivated the
plants which were most useful to them, and which met all
their other needs. In the long winter months they told stories
and reconnected with the supernatural world. They lived
peacefully among their Puget Sound neighbors, and engaged
in a social practice unique to Pacific Northwest Indians,
natives here came to be known as the Whidbey (or Lower)
Skagits who lived in the north and the Snohomish who occupied
the southern part of the Island. At various times the Suquamish
and the Klallams made a home here too, and the island was
visited regularly by the Snoqualmie and the mainland Skagits.
The more war-like Haida of British Columbia came here occasionally,
raiding the Skagits for slaves, but these were outsiders.
division into tribes was really an invention of the government.
In the 1850s territorial governor Isaac Stevens needed politically
distinct groups with leaders who speak for their people.
Otherwise it would be impossible to remove the natives by
treaty. This kind of leader simply didn’t exist. The
Puget Sound natives were groups of inter-related peoples
living together in bands, sharing common resources with
their neighbors. The “chiefs” were important
men, but had no authority outside their own families and
the slaves at their command. The “tribes” spoke
different languages, but intermarried and communicated with
each other in a simple common language, the original Chinook
white settlers tended to think that the natives were mostly
nomadic, and therefore didn’t really own the land.
Perhaps that made it easier to live on the land taken from
them. But in fact the Skagits and Snohomish had well-established
territories and at least eight permanent villages on the
island. Each village had several longhouses occupied jointly
by a number of families, and a potlatch house. They gathered
food from all over the island and took seasonal trips to
make food harvesting easier, but they considered the village
their home and revered it as the home of their ancestors.
Skagits buried their dead in canoes hung on poles or trees
near the villages. The burial ground near the Oak Harbor
settlement existed until modern memory. Old timers reported
that as children they found trinkets and beads at the
Crooked Spit, which extended from Maylor Point to Oak
Harbor. The remains were still there until the 1940s when
the Navy cut 900 feet from the spit to build their base,
and the Swinomish reservation moved the remains to La
winter they used the potlatch houses to demonstrate and
reinforce their connection to the supernatural world. They
enacted ceremonies and told legends for the education of
their children, passing on their oral history and moral
teachings. Winter was also a time to repair nets, make knives
out of stone for cooking or hunting, craft baskets and clothing,
and build the all-important canoes.
Skagits lived in three villages around Penn Cove, one in
Oak Harbor, and another in Crescent Harbor. They most valued
the land later known to white settlers as Ebey’s Prairie.
The more aggressive Klallams, from the south shores of Juan
De Fuca, also coveted the prairie, and periodically invaded
the island in an attempt to wrest it from the Skagits. Later
the settlers too would choose it as the site for their first
Snohomish had two permanent villages on the island and another
on Camano. Their main village on the island was at Cultus
Bay and there was another sizable village at Sandy Point.
They also had many seasonal camps, which they used for harvesting
food or hunting.
of these was at Greenbank. There, where the island was narrowest,
the Snohomish could portage their canoes from the Saratoga
Passage to the Straits on the other side.
were important members of the village. In addition to
keeping the dogs, weaving the cloth, preparing food, making
baskets and mats, the resourceful women learned how to
make a birth control medicine. In the 1850s, a Skagit
showed George Gibbs the herb and told them that Indian
women did not have children unless they wanted to.
Snohomish marriage ceremony went something like this: the
man exults in his life’s good things …his good
wife and his children. An exchange of gifts and the marriage
was sealed. If the family were of high enough standing there
would be a potlatch with gifts exchanged with the entire
community. If there were a divorce, the gifts were returned,
and the faulty partner was shunned as a future marriage
partner. A powerful chief might have many wives.
were also valued. They flattened the babies’ heads
by padding the head in the first year of life, to ensure
their beauty as adults. The Skagits and Snohomish did
not flatten the head as much as some other tribes in the
northwest, but the slight flattening was considered attractive.
Snohomish Indian Harriette Dover told Dorothy that her
grandparents, who lived on Whidbey before the reservations,
said Indians never punished children by spanking or striking
them. Their philosophy was “You can hit a mongrel
dog, but not a child.”
before the fur traders came, there was a trading network
among the tribes. It was at least as much for social as
economic reasons, since the natives were self-sufficient.
It was part of the potlatch. Though never reaching the elaborate
form of the coastal natives, the Whidbey potlatch followed
the same basic pattern.
might be a wedding, a naming, coming of age, or a healing
ceremony that brought the tribes together. The guests were
lavishly fed and given gifts according to their status.
The guest chief would be lower in prestige if in the future
he failed to give as many gifts as his host did. The more
he gave - food, blankets, baskets and carved boxes - the
more respected he was. This social hierarchy helped resolve
disputes and keep the peace. It was much more productive
than war as a way to determine a chief’s status and
appears to have worked well. Marriage and trade reinforced
these critical social ties. For some gatherings, people
from all over Puget Sound came.
were occasional hostilities, but they had a well-understood
method of resolution. Even when the more aggressive Klallams
attacked and blood was spilled, peace could be restored
by gifts. The Whidbey natives were not aggressors.
Americans on Whidbey had everything they needed to live
a full, culturally rich life, and they created institutions
ideal living peacefully with their neighbors. Unlike the
white man, who saw the natural world as something to dominate,
the Whidbey natives saw spirits in animals, rocks, natural
phenomena, trees and plants, and saw themselves as a part
shows in the life they lived. Until the fur traders came
and disrupted the delicate balance, they took what they
needed, but not more, and a man’s social prestige
lay in what he could give away, not in what he could keep.
is the Skagit name for the creator. The Skagits told another
tale of Doquebuth – the Myth of