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Native woman who shaped Island history is remembered

Native American Lucy Gerand, a longtime Island resident who provided some of the earliest known stories about life on Vashon, finally received a headstone on her unmarked grave last Friday in a quiet ceremony at the Vashon Cemetery.

Gerand, who died Jan. 7, 1929, of tuberculosis, according to the state Department of Health’s death register, was one of very few Vashon Native Americans who left behind a record of what it was like to live on Vashon with her tribe in the 19th century.

Despite her place in history, her grave has been unmarked for the past 79 years — until several people, including part-time Islander Bill Slaughter, began working towards a more appropriate recognition for a woman who they consider one of the Island’s most significant.

Friday’s ceremony marked that moment.

Attended by about 20 people, it represented a collaboration among several groups: The Puyallup tribe of Indians, represented by tribe official David Duenas, the Vashon Cemetery District, represented by district board member Lisa Devereau, and several Islanders interested in Native history, including Rayna Holtz of the Vashon Library and Slaughter, an independent researcher born on Vashon.

The event at the cemetery began with the laying of a granite headstone, inscribed with the words, “Puyallup Elder, Lucy Gerand, 1836-1929.”

Moments later, as though on cue, two eagles began circling high above the site. Duenas saw it as auspicious.

“The eagles represent the spirit on its journey,” Duenas said. “Her (Gerand’s) spirit has probably been waiting here until now. They are helping her to go on her journey.”

“There are three deaths,” Judy Wright, the Puyallup tribe historian, told the small group. “The death of the body. Placing the body in the ground. And nobody remembering the person. We’re here today to remember Lucy.”

Gerand lived on Quartermaster Harbor with her second husband Tom, digging clams and selling them in Tacoma.

She became important as a historical witness after she was interviewed by anthropologist T.T. Waterman in the 1920s, providing him with a motherlode of information about the region’s place names, living sites and buildings created by Vashon Native Americans. Waterman’s work based on these interviews appears in the book “Puget Sound Geography.”

Gerand also testified in a 1927 Native claims case against the United States. She and two others complained that the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854 did not provide sufficient land for the number of people to live on, as reported in a March 1927 issue of The Tacoma News Tribune.

The aim of the treaty was to move Puget Sound Native people, including those living on Vashon and Maury Islands, onto reservations to make way for white settlers coming from the east.

The Native peoples were made up of many groups that were put together as Puyallup, Nisqually and Squaxin by the federal government, which ruled Washington as a territory until 1853, when it became a state.

The treaty was signed by representatives of both sides.

Slaughter, now a psychiatrist living in Boston, retains a great interest in the Island and especially the history of its Native peoples, a history that he says represents a kind of ethnic cleansing.

“There’s unfinished business here on Vashon,” he said about the Native population.

He and Devereau agreed that there are many unmarked graves like Durand’s on Vashon, in the cemetery and elsewhere. They want to mark them and to make the history of the Native people on Vashon more known than it has been.

As evidence of how the Native American history on Vashon has been largely erased, Slaughter referred to Oliver Van Olinda’s 1935 book “History of Vashon,” which states, according to Slaughter, that there were no Native people on Vashon when the first settlers came. The federal Indian Agent, though, counted approximately 40 in 1852, and by the time settlers began to arrive, the reservation resettlement had already been instituted.

But not without a fight.

Chief Leschi of the Nisqually, who died in 1858, claimed not to have signed the treaty and fiercely resisted confinement on a reservation, according to HistoryLink.org. He allegedly led an attack on Seattle on Jan. 26, 1856, and was hanged in 1858 on unrelated (and, in the opinion of many pioneers, false) charges of murder and rebellion.

Slaughter said that the so-called “Indian War” came about because Leschi said that the land given to the Nisqually was inferior to the ancestral lands where the tribes had been accustomed to living along the Nisqually River.

One of the rights granted by the United States to the Puget Sound Native people was to fish the waters they had always fished, but, according to the 1927 Tacoma News Tribune story, the Medicine Creek treaty contained language that itself erased the right. The issue was not finally decided until 1974, when, after years of conflict between the government and Native people, a court case decided that the Native people did indeed have a fishing right, but only to half of the catch.

At Friday’s ceremony, the mood was playful and respectful as people traded stories and listened to the words of Duenas.

Near the end, Island artist Israel Shotridge came forward and asked permission from Duenas to perform a chant. Shotridge, who was accompanied by his wife Sue, is a Tlingit from Ketchikan, Alaska.

Duenas, in the inclusive spirit of the event, welcomed Shotridge and remembered that he had once been in Ketchikan. “The elders there were very receptive to us,” he said.

Also present was 95-year-old Islander Helen Puz who remembered that as a young girl, she had been aware of Gerand’s presence. Puz lived in Burton in the 1920s while Gerand was living in Dockton.

“She and her husband Tom used to dig clams in Quartermaster Harbor,” Puz said, “and I remember seeing them on the ferry to Tacoma, carrying their clams to sell in the market.”

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