This holiday season, I am grateful to the indigenous people of south Whidbey Island, the Snohomish people, whose legacy has sparked a passion to better know and honor the island’s first residents.
Ever since moving here with my family twenty years ago, I wondered about the absence of Native Americans, whose ancestral home we now occupy. It wasn’t until last July that I learned about the Snohomish Tribal Villages in Langley, Freeland, and Clinton that preceded white settlement. Interviewing local historians for a story then, I learned of Chief William Shelton, a cultural ambassador between his people and his ‘white brothers.’ In the Snohomish language, William’s name was (Wah-kah-dub) Whea-ka-dim.
Unsolved Mysteries — Maxwelton Mystery Ship — Revisited was This is Whidbey’s most-read article. Research for that story introduced me to William Shelton, born at Sandy Point near Langley in 1869. Afterwards I kept looking at William’s photo, and thinking many times, “Wow, this man deeply touches me.” I was lit up with wanting to learn more about his legacy.
By November, needing a break from the constant anxiety I felt when reading the news, I looked to William Shelton for relief, visiting him where his spirit lives on in a Tulalip cultural center.
On November fourth — I visited the Hibulb Cultural Center and Natural History Preserve on the Tulalip Reservation near Marysville. William Shelton’s remarkable totems and excerpts from his life are on display, along with exhibits of our area’s indigenous people’s beliefs, language, art, and resiliency in the face of losing their homeland. William’s commitment to preserving the vibrancy of his people’s connection to land and spirit, while building bridges with the incoming tide of white settlers, is remarkable, considering the hardships his people faced.
The Tulalip Reservation was where Snohomish, Snoqualmie, Skykomish and other tribes were sent to live following passage of the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott, now, the present-day site of the Mukilteo Ferry. The treaty resulted in Washington State territory signatory tribes ceding over five million acres of their land. On Whidbey Island William’s family and tribal members, who once maintained tribal long houses at Sandy Point, Possession Point, and Holmes Harbor in Freeland, were told to leave and relocate to the Tulalip reservation, where too many people and too-few resources awaited them.
At the museum, I learned that in 1850, the Oregon Donation Land Act gave away hundreds of acres of ‘free’ land to qualified white settlers. By 1853 the census reported that 3,965 non-natives lived in Washington. By 1855 more than half of Washington’s native population had died due to smallpox and other white people’s disease. A U.S. government treaty promised to guarantee Indian’s fishing and hunting rights, while providing healthcare and education, in exchange for signing away the Indians’ ancestral land. The government promises were not kept, and the tribes fought for their rights in the ensuing decades.
A display about the treaty reads: “President Franklin Pearce asked Governor Isaac Stevens to act promptly to concentrate Indians in as few as possible reservations on the least amount of land and at minimal expense to the United States by making treaties with Native Tribes throughout the Washington territory (Washington become a state in November, 1889). The goal was relinquishment of all Indian claims so as to ‘legitimize’ existing settlers, and stem growing conflict between Indian and non-Indian settlers.”
William was raised on Whidbey Island away from white settlers by his parents Charles (Wah-cah-dub) Whe-ka-dim Shelton — his father— and Magdelene Sus-chol-cho-lit-sa — his mother. Their wish for him was to become an Indian doctor and they worried he would catch white diseases if he went to school on the Tulalip Reservation. As he entered his teenage years, William learned that boys attending the reservation’s Mission School knew things he did not. With a hunger for greater knowledge, he writes in his book, The Story of the Totem Pole or Indian Legends: “I decided to run away and enroll at the Mission School.” He paddled his canoe from Whidbey Island to Tulalip Bay and met up with cousins on the reservation who went with him to enroll at the school. Although when he first arrived, he knew neither how to write nor how to speak English. From the age of 17 through 21, William remained at the school, learning to speak, read and write English. He secured a post with the government Indian agency, where he remained until the 1930s. William Shelton died in 1938.
The museum’s storyboards about William note: “He remained passionate about protecting the Coast Salish culture. In a time of forced assimilation, he often performed dances and gave speeches about Native culture, and became famous worldwide for his pole carvings. In 1922 William Shelton began carving an 80-foot story pole depicting traditional legends and stories. Before carving the pole, Shelton recalled stories and lesson he heard growing up. The stories often centered on a a certain animal or object which Shelton carved onto his pole.
“In pre-contact times, Coast Salish children were taught with legends and stories like the ones depicted on the pole. He (William Shelton) describes this type of education as, ‘In the early days the Indians had a method of teaching their children by telling them stories. The ones that told the stories had to be careful to tell good stories to the children, for these were the only lesson they depend upon to raise good children.”
Harriette Shelton Dover, William Shelton’s daughter, shared his gift for keeping her people’s traditions alive. She wrote about the family’s Possession Point longhouse in her book, Tulalip From My Heart, available at the museum gift store and on Amazon. Harriet recalls an early Snohomish legendary ancestor who began the tradition of guardian spirit quests. “He had a vision of a longhouse, a community house like our people used to live in, that was deep in the water. Whales came to tell him that some of our forefathers are deep in the water, and that is where the tradition of the community house came from.”
She writes, “The longhouse at Possession Point, where my father lived, had the poles with the design of the mouths of whales carved and painted on them. The farmers tore the longhouse apart after the Indians moved away from there to the reservation.”
Harriette’s parents, William and Ruth, lived on the reservation, when she was born in 1904. I learned from Harriet’s story at the museum: “Harriet grew up in a challenging and changing time for Native Americans, a time where poverty and disease were rampant on reservations. The majority of her siblings did not live past childhood. A year after she was born the United States government implemented mandatory boarding school for all Native children in order to assimilate them into American culture. Harriet recalls growing up in the boarding school on the Tulalip Reservation as militaristic and harsh which she experienced firsthand when she was caught speaking Snohomish and was severely punished.”
Yet Harriet went on to be an advocate for her people and their culture. In an introduction to Tulalip, Harriet’s friend, and editor/publisher of Tulalip, Darleen Fitzpatrick, writes that Harriet was elected to the Tulalip Tribes Board of Directors, served as its chair for a year and was the first Native American woman in the state to hold such a post. She served as a tribal judge and liaison between the Tulalip Tribes and non-Indian community. She served on the Marysville School board and lectured on American Indian culture. Harriet testified for Native American’s fishing rights that were originally granted in the 1855 treaty but not honored, in cases such as United States v. Washington, Phase One in 1973. She served as a local Democratic precinct chair.
South Whidbey Historical Society + William Shelton
The South Whidbey Historical Society has an ongoing interest in Chief William Shelton’s story as well as the indigenous tribal clans who once lived here. Some of their descendants still do.
Bill Haroldson, the society’s president, created a presentation that was shown last February at Bayview Hall. He recently shared it with me, and I was impressed by the photos and film clips of William Shelton —dressed as a Plains Indian (he was advised to look like the Indians that white audiences saw in movies in order to reach more white Americans with his message), and dancing with his daughter Harriet in 1935 at the Penn Cove Water Festival in Coupeville.
In the presentation, our island’s native son recalls his ancestors: “They told me stories which would create in me the desire to become brave, and good, and strong, to become a good speaker, a good leader, they taught me to honor old people and always do all in my power to help them.”
William wondered why tribes were unable to practice their celebrations and culture when people of European heritage could freely worship and express themselves freely. An Indian agent, Dr. Charles Buchanan — who also served as superintendent of the Tulalip Indian School— told William to write a letter to the Bureau of Indian affairs as well as the Department of Interior with his request.
A letter from the Department of the Interior was sent to William Shelton with the words: “The Indians can have a Treaty Day for one day and one evening. They are not allowed to dance all night or until daylight. They have to go home and take care of their livestock.”
Ironically the Tulalip tribes were allowed to ‘commemorate’ the very day the document that placed them on reservations was signed. Dr. Charles Buchanan set January 22 as the day to commemorate the signing of the treaty in Mukilteo in 1855. Treaty Day was held in 1911, 1912 and 1913 at the Tulalip Indian School.
In 1914, the government gave the Tulalip tribes permission to build a Potlatch house. There was dancing, drumbeating, and speeches in the native language. Older Indians talked about being present at the signing of the treaty. Shelton proclaimed: “This is not a celebration; it is a commemoration, because the Indians were not having a good time when they met to discuss and sign the treaty.”
At the signing one elder received a fish hook and one yard of narrow red ribbon. “That was some payment for giving up my share of the land,” he later said.
William later started the Tulalip Improvement Club to discuss tribal issues. Elders spoke in their native language. Younger ones spoke in English. Shelton’s argument for calling it an Improvement Club — in the face of a federal prohibition of meeting for political purpose–was how could the government stop them from meeting if they were trying to improve themselves.
On learning to live with a new culture William Shelton said, “Assimilation is better. I love my people, but I see the other side too. I see we are given every chance to make good. But as long as we stay apart from the White Brothers and live among ourselves on Reservations we will never get any place. We must mix. We must be one with the White Brothers.”
William began appearing with his daughter Harriette at the Coupeville Water Festival. They would demonstrate native dancing, singing, drum beating, and storytelling all to revive and teach native culture. They would also go to schools throughout the region. William would regularly show up in full (Plains Indian) native costume with a full head dress and was always introduced as Chief William Shelton.
When asked about it, he would say, “If we are going to fight for American Indians, we need to look like Indians. The only Indians white people see are in the movies and we need to look like them.”
The Story Continues – New History Revealed
For the last century, a collection of over 500 artifacts, once kept in the home of a bi-racial South Whidbey pioneer family has been revealed. These artifacts present a remarkable outline of an unknown chapter of South Whidbey, the Snohomish Shelton Clan descendants and development of the greater Sandy Point area.
South Whidbey Historical Society President, Bill Haroldson states: “Rarely do we find an intact set of cultural artifacts that provides historians the opportunity to unearth the human story behind the broader historical record.” Haroldson adds, “Equipped with a Bachelor and Master’s Degree in Pacific Northwest History and Historic Preservation from Western Washington University, project manager Kyle Walker has been welcomed by family descendants and residents of the greater Sandy Point area during initial research efforts over the past two years.She has accumulated astonishing stories and identification of other artifacts.”
The collection and subsequent research tells the story of a wayward Portuguese whaler, Joseph Brown, who married a “high-born” member of the Coast Salish Snohomish Tribe, Mary Shelton – Williams Shelton’s “favorite” aunt.
The project illustrates how the former major Snohomish tribal village at Sandy Point, was also once known as Brown’s Point. The site became an epicenter of maritime trade in the Puget Sound, a destination of Euro-American settlers and summer homes of notable families. The collection documents historical events that connect south Whidbey Island to the Pacific Northwest and beyond. According to Kyle Walker, whose family lovingly preserved the collection, “the parallels to the social conditions of today are remarkable.”
The South Whidbey Historical Society is a local non-profit sponsor for this major project and are hosting a grassroots funding site to build a matching fund to leverage grants at the local, state and federal level. Working with descendants and long-term residents over the last two years has brought focus to the project.
“If readers have photographs, maps, newspapers, letters or documents that may contribute to this story, please let us know,” Kyle said. The project consists of four areas of research:
- Profiling primary and seasonal Snohomish Tribal Villages on Whidbey and Camano islands, including culture and familial practices, inter-tribal and clan relations.
- Developing a portrait of familial life, indentured servitude and challenges faced by bi-racial families and women (Portuguese/Snohomish) in a cross-cultural setting.
- Addressing tribal and extended pioneer family involvement investigating white slavery trafficking, prostitution and the illegal sales of alcohol and opium to native populations in the Pacific Northwest.
- Telling the history of the greater Sandy Point area including tribal and Euro-American immigrant impacts on Puget Sound maritime trade, agri-business, the logging industry, and tourism.
Kyle added: “Contributors to the project can expect a variety of tangible outcomes to honor William Shelton and others, which will be based on research findings. Examples include interpretive displays and signage, interactive tableau mapping, publications, public art, Vol. III History of South Whidbey, videos, educational materials, collection preservation, museum exhibits, and a database of new records with digital access. “
A video highlighting the collection and project can be viewed at the grassroots funding site hosted by the South Whidbey Historical Society at the following link: A Tangled Web of History.
We look forward to learning more of Kyle’s research to honor the people who our country tried to erase.
Thank you, William Shelton, for continuing to inspire us to bridge our differences and celebrate our roots.
From Jane H in South Carolina via email: What a remarkable story! I have been upset by the treatment of Native Americans for a long, long time. Over
and over they have received the short end of the stick – if any of the stick, at all – yet have been known to
have had practices in managing their lives and land around them with a long practiced successful system.
It was painful to drive across the miles and miles of the Navajo Reservation and see nothing but arid dirt.
It was painful to see the reservation at Neah Bay and realize that growing food is an impossible challenge.
I can only hope that ways can be found to right many of the wrongs that have happened. This is a wonderful
article reminding those of us today of the history of northwest tribes and the work that needs to be done. I
sincerely hope that our culture can get beyond acknowledgement and move toward action.
Sharing facts about our Ancestors is what our people need. So much is buried in colonial dominated teachings.
so enjoyable to read .. thank you
Very well written
Thank you, Joel!