Whidbey Island

Doquebuth's Children: the history in the myth

The Skagit Flood Myth

Whidbey History  

Imagine 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.

field of camas

Native 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, the potlatch.

The 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.

This 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 Jargon.

Early 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.

potlatch house in CoupevilleThe 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 Conner.

In 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.

The 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 cabins.

The 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.

One 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.

Women 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.

The 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.

Children 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.”

Long 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.

It 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.

There 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.

Native 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 of that.

This 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.

*Doquebuth is the Skagit name for the creator. The Skagits told another tale of Doquebuth – the Myth of the Flood.