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Native America

Where to Discover Native Cultures in the Puget Sound Area

With 29 federally recognized tribes in Washington state, and several more that are not yet recognized, opportunities abound to learn about Native cultures.

October 16, 2018

As historian Coll Thrush pointed out in his book Native Seattle, Seattle, more than any other American city, pays homage to its Indigenous roots. It was named for a Duwamish/Suquamish chief, whose profile is on the city’s seal. From the names of its ferries to the Native-inspired Seahawks logo, Indigenous designs and place-names are everywhere. Snohomish, Skykomish, Tacoma, Puyallup, Skagit, Elwha, Snoqualmie. 

But it’s also a city that was built on stolen Native land, a city that once banned Native people from entering.
How much does the average Washingtonian know about its Native histories, about the many tribes that lived in complex societies around Puget Sound for thousands of years before Europeans arrived? How much do they know about the thousands of Indigenous people who live, work and create in urban centers and reservations around Washington state today?

“Native history is American history,” says Russell Brooks (Southern Cheyenne). Brooks is executive director for Red Eagle Soaring, a Seattle-based nonprofit that empowers Native youth to express themselves through traditional and contemporary performing arts. When Brooks was growing up in Montana, Native American history was covered in just two pages in his high school history textbook. 

Red Eagle Soaring, a Seattle-based nonprofit that empowers Native youth to express reclaim their cultural identities.
Youth alumni of Red Eagle Soaring, a Seattle-based nonprofit that empowers Native youth to express themselves through traditional and contemporary performing arts.

“I will never forget how it ended,” he recalls. “With the phrase ‘It was a conflict of cultures and the Indians were the losers.’”

Brooks’ great-great-grandfather was sent to a boarding school that aimed to assimilate Native children and strip them of their heritage. Now, says Brooks, “We are in a state of recovery.” One positive sign: In 2015, the Washington state legislature passed a bill requiring that all schools in Washington teach tribal history and government through a curriculum called “Since Time Immemorial,” or STI. Red Eagle Soaring’s programming supports the STI curriculum.

“It’s a long-range process,” says Brooks. “We’re just starting to get traction.”

“There’s multigenerational trauma but there’s multigenerational resiliency, too.”

The four-part PBS series Native America, which airs on KCTS starting on October 23, 2018 is another sign, one of a number of efforts to recognize and raise awareness of all that Indigenous peoples have contributed to the Americas before and since contact with Europeans. (See sidebar.) In Seattle, a city that recently appointed its first Native American woman as superintendent of public schools, Indigenous peoples have fought for decades to have their tribes recognized, their arts and culture supported, their languages taught, their rights respected and their stories told. 

In January 2018, Seattle Art Museum mounted a show on the complicated legacy of Edward Curtis. “Double Exposure” explored Curtis’ work by displaying his photographs with critical commentary, and alongside Native-created multimedia works that explored First People’s “complex present.” The Suquamish Museum curated a similarly nuanced show about Curtis.

With 29 federally recognized tribes in Washington state alone, and several more that are not yet recognized, opportunities abound for the non-Natives of this land to learn about Native cultures. Many tribes have cultural centers that are open to the public or host annual events or festivals. 

Suquamish museum executive director Janet Smoak makes a case for visiting each tribal cultural center, each site.

“There’s a saying,” she says, “that if you’ve seen one pioneer museum, you’ve seen them all. This is not the case with Native American museums. Each one is incredibly unique because they’re representing a distinct culture. It’s worth getting to know each local tribe,” she says.

“You Are on Indigenous Land,” declared an exhibit by award-winning Seminole/Choctaw filmmaker Tracy Rector, whose works were included in the SAM exhibit “Double Exposure.” Here’s a starter list of Puget Sound–area sites and experiences that serve as a launching point for learning about the Native stories that are woven everywhere through the Northwest’s past, present and future. 

yəhaw̓: A collective portrait of Native America

Art by Roldy Aguero Ablao.
One example among a variety of art from Native artists at yəhaw̓.
Credit: Roldy Aguero Ablao 

“This seems like a very important moment to recognize the First Peoples of this land,” says Asia Tail (Cherokee), co-curator of yəhaw̓, along with Tracy Rector and Satpreet Kahlon. The ambitious, multifaceted art project, which draws its name from a Coast Salish story of people gathering to lift up the sky, kicked off with a three-month series at the Seattle Public Library. Coast Salish women artists are displaying work, and workshops and events feature Native print-makers, woodcarvers and mixed-media artists. 

Early in 2019, yəhaw̓ officially opens an inaugural exhibit at King Street Station. Community-driven and inclusive, the project will also include mentorship opportunities, satellite exhibitions, art markets and studio space. It will showcase, states co-curator Tracy Rector, “creatives of all ages and stages in their careers, from Urban and Reservation communities, working in contemporary and traditional materials, and in ways that may or may not be widely recognized as Native.” Every indigenous person who submits a work will be accepted.
More info and schedule of events: Visit, and

wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ: Intellectual House

In 2015, the University of Washington completed a project, decades in the making, to build a Coast Salish style longhouse that serves as a gathering space for Native American and Alaska Native students, faculty and staff. Designed by Native architect Johnpaul Jones, the 8,400 square foot complex includes a kitchen with teaching space for food preparation and a circular outdoor gathering space. It is called wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ, a Luhootsheed term that loosely translates to “Intellectual House.” This is just phase one; the planned phase two includes a building that will add meeting rooms, an arts lab and an Elders lounge.

Intellectual House hosts more than 130 events a year and serves practical functions as well. For the students, “It’s a home away from home,” says Iisaaksiichaa Ross B. (Apsaalooke Nation), director of Intellectual House. There is drumming practice and regalia making, movie screenings and cooking classes. 

As for the public: “It makes us visible,” he says. Thirty-four thousand visitors stopped by last year.   
More information: Visit this link on the University of Washington’s site about wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ.

Suquamish Museum

Suquamish Museum
An intertiot picture of the Suquamish Museum. Credit: Benjamin Benschneider Photography

Situated on Hood Canal in the town of Suquamish, in a spot known as “the place of clear salt water” by the Suquamish people, the museum moved to this site in 2012. Sited among cedar, hemlock and fir trees, the LEED gold-certified building was designed to suggest a nurse log in the forest. The longhouse-style building includes a craft workspace, with an ethnobotanic garden just outside. Attendance has tripled since the opening, says executive director Janet Smoak. While its mission of preserving cultural objects related to the Suquamish people is critical, she says, the museum is also dedicated to “placing the culture that is part of this landscape on ancestral territory, bringing it to the modern time.”

To wit: In 2019, the museum will exhibit the work of Suquamish master basket weaver Ed Carriere, who uses fragments of cedar baskets excavated from a 2,000-year-old archaeological site to inform detailed replicas. 

Within walking distance is Chief Seattle’s gravesite and the village site known as Old Man House, which included the largest known longhouse in Washington state (burned by U.S. troops in the 1800s). In 2013, the Burke Museum transferred artifacts gathered from the Old Man House site back to the Suquamish people. 

More info:

Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center

Duwamish Longhouse interior.
An interior image of Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center, Seattle, Washington.
Credit: Joe Mabel 

The Duwamish tribe, the original residents of Seattle, has been battling for federal recognition for decades. In 2011, the tribe opened its cultural center. Overlooking the Duwamish River and two ancient village sites, the Salish style longhouse can hold up to 200 people; the center includes a tribal kitchen. After you visit the longhouse, walk across the street to Herring House Park, a village site on Elliott Bay that once held seven longhouses and had been a site since the sixth century. 

More info:

8th Generation

8th Generation storefront
Eight Generation storefront at Pike Place Market.
Image credit: Eighth Generation

In 2008, Louie Gong (Nooksack) began customizing shoes with a Coast Salish design from his living room. In 2016, he opened his beautiful flagship store in Pike Place Market (just above the Gum Wall), working with a wide range of Native artists to not only sell their products, from phone cases to jewelry, but to support them as artists. (His space includes a multipurpose room for meetings, workshops and an artist-in-residence program.) He also markets his own line of beautiful, Native-designed wool blankets, the first Native owned company (unbelievably) to do so. With a stop at the beautiful, clean-lined Eighth Generation gallery, millions of visitors who go through Pike Place Market each year are getting a different narrative about Native people. “Pike Place Market is the perfect location for us to challenge stereotypes of who Native people are” Gong said in a recent interview.

More info:


Top image: Brian Perry is a S’Klallam artist practicing his traditionally inspired works in both time-honored and contemporary ways and materials. Pictured is one of his S'Klallam Northwest coast canoes.


More to explore

Daybreak Star Cultural Center: Located on 20 acres in Discovery Park, the center  was founded after Native Americans occupied Fort Lawton (Discovery Park was formerly a military base) in the 1970s. Managed by the United Indians of All Tribes, Daybreak Star hosts art exhibits, markets and important cultural events, including the annual SeaFair Pow-Wow that thousands attend. 

The Burke Museum: The Burke, which moves to its new building in 2019, has been involved in archaeological and anthropological investigations relating to Native cultures around Puget Sound. Its Pacific Voices exhibit showcases Coast Salish art and culture, as well as efforts to save the Lushootseed language. Its Waterlines Project documents how Seattle’s landscapes have changed since European arrival. 

Chehiahud Loop: Next time you’re circling Lake Union on foot or by bike, pay attention to the blue signs indicating that you are on the Cheshiahud Loop. Dedicated in 2008, the loop is a six-mile multi-use loop around Lake Union that connects parks, pocket parks, street ends and waterways. Named for a Duwamish man who once lived on the lake’s shoreline, the loop’s signs share histories of the lake and how it sustained local tribes. 

Taqwsheblu ‘s Vi Hilbert’s Ethnobotanical Garden: As a child, Upper Skagit elder Vi Hilbert was punished for speaking her native Coast Salish language of Luhootsheed. As an adult, she spent decades working with linguists to document and preserve the language. This Seattle University garden honors her work, as well as the relationship between First Peoples, their land and the language. 

Makah Museum: At the western tip of Neah Bay on the Olympic Peninsula is the ancestral home of the Makah people, famous for their whaling rituals and practice. The famed museum exhibits whaling and fishing gear, as well as many artifacts from the archaeological site at Lake Ozette, a Makah village that was destroyed by a mudslide in 1750. 

Hibulb Cultural Center: “So we can remember,” says the Hibulb Cultural Center’s website of its mission. Located just off I-5 on a 50-acre natural history preserve, this Tulalip center opened in 2011. Exhibits area labeled in both English and Luhootsheed, and the complex includes a grand Canoe hall and temporary exhibits. 

Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge: Located on the ancestral grounds of the Nisqually tribe, the wildlife refuge was also the site of the first signed Indian treaty, in 1854. Now, the refuge is one of the most intact estuaries (where saltwater meets the freshwater of the Nisqually River) in Washington state. In 2016, it was posthumously named in honor of Nisqually tribal leader Billy Frank, Jr., in honor of his advocacy for tribal fishing rights. 

Watch Native America on KCTS 9

In America’s Southwest, First People built stone skyscrapers. In New York, a tribe founded America’s first democracy 500 before the Declaration of Independence democracy and inspired Benjamin Franklin. These are just some of the stories told by this four-part PBS series, which premieres on Oct. 23, and which travels through 15,000 years, showcasing “massive cities, unique systems of science, art, and writing, and 100 million people connected by social networks and spiritual beliefs spanning two continents.” 

Elisa Murray

Elisa Murray is a Seattle-based freelance editor and writer.

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