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New exhibit delves into Vashon’s Native American past
By NATALIE MARTIN
When volunteers with Vashon’s historical museum set out to create a new exhibit on Vashon’s Native American history, they quickly realized they had a challenge ahead of them. While much is known about the Native Americans of the Puget Sound region, much is also unknown, as thousands of Native people were killed and countless artifacts destroyed in the years following Europeans’ arrival in the area.
“Their culture was destroyed so rapidly, within 20 years or so of the first major contact in the Vashon area” said Rayna Holtz, a curator of the new exhibit, referring to the disease, war and internment which wiped out a majority of the region’s Native population.
“The epidemics not only killed people, but so much collective memory of history and ways of life,” added Laurie Tucker, a board member of the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association who is curating the exhibit with Holtz.
One late Vashon Native, however, has provided a peek into Native life, both good and bad, on the island. Lucy Gerand, a Puyallup woman who was born on Quartermaster Harbor in the early 1800s, gave one of the only public accounts of Native life on Vashon before white settlement. Many of her stories and the information she passed on are now the basis for The Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Museum’s new exhibit, “Vashon Island’s Native People: Navigating the Seas of Change.”
In the extensive exhibit, which opens Friday and will run for nine months, Holtz, Tucker and other museum volunteers have laid out the Native American story on Vashon, from before European settlement through modern times.
“We wanted to highlight what life was like before white people came, what life was like when (Native people) were struggling to survive and what life is like now,” Holtz said.
Holtz, who retired from a long career at the Vashon Library a few years ago, and Tucker, who still works there, both say they have been surprised by how little some library patrons know about the area’s Native past.
“The average person on Vashon doesn’t realize there were Native people here,” Holtz said.
According to Holtz and Tucker, it was only a few generations ago that Native American villages dotted Quartermaster Harbor. The Sxwobabc, a band of what’s now known as the Puyallup tribe, thrived on the natural resources of the area and lived what the women call an advanced and highly sustainable life on the island.
“The complexity of their culture is comparable to any other great civilization,” Holtz said.
That civilization, however, began to collapse soon after the arrival of Europeans, who brought with them diseases that by the 1850s killed over two-thirds of the Coast Salish people, the tribes that lived in the Pacific Northwest Coast.
Those who survived, including Lucy Gerand saw the two cultures clash in the Puget Sound Indian War. Gerand, along with other Natives from Vashon and throughout the region, were interned at Fox Island in 1855 and eventually placed on the Puyallup Reservation.
“One year a ship comes to take a few logs, and two years later you’re out of your home. Can you imagine that?” Holtz said. “I can’t even imagine what that was like.”
Gerand, who lost several children on the reservation due to poor living conditions and recurring epidemics, eventually returned to Vashon, where she lived with her family on a houseboat at Jensen Point.
It was then that Gerand became a historical witness, interviewed by anthropologist T.T. Waterman in the 1920s and providing him with a motherlode of information about the region’s place names, living sites and buildings created by the Sxwobabc people.
Gerand also testified in a 1927 Native claims case against the United States. She and over 150 other Natives argued that the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854 did not provide sufficient land for the number of people to live on and that other promises were not fulfilled.
“She gave practically the only details about life here before pioneers came,” Holtz said of Gerand. “And we discover what it was like to be coming back and picking up the vestiges of what was a good life.”
The new exhibit tells the story of Gerand and the Sxwobabc people through historical photos, many of which have never been displayed in the museum before, a map of known Native villages, informational panels and interactive items such as a spinning calendar of the Sxwobabc seasons and an iPad app on the Twulshootseed language. There will also be a slate of artifacts from the museum’s collection and beyond.
Among the artifacts on display will be stone tools, a woven cedar hat, a child’s doll made of bear grass and a canoe paddle, along with a model of a traditional canoe. The centerpiece of the show is a 150-year-old cooking basket woven by Gerand’s own mother.
Cooking baskets, Holtz explained, were staples of the Sxwobabc culture and were built to last. One basket could take 150 hours for a Sxwobabc woman to weave, but it could be used for up to five generations and in trading was worth as much as a canoe.
The basket woven by Gerand’s mother is on loan from the Burke Museum. The Vashon museum had to pay to borrow the basket, and only after proving the museum building has proper security to keep such a precious artifact.
Holtz, who has grown “rather attached to Lucy,” she said, called it a thrill to have the basket as part of the exhibit. A couple who has worked at museums professionally helped the Vashon volunteers build special cases to protect the basket and other artifacts during their time at the museum.
“I can imagine that basket in the summertime sitting by a fire,” Holtz said, “in the wintertime cooking a big stew when it’s cold outside. … I feel that it emanates years and years of experience that may partly predate the settlement of Vashon.”
Also on display will be a clamming basket used by the Puyallup people. Holtz said she and Tucker asked the Puyallup tribe to borrow the artifact specifically because Gerand supported herself and her family on Vashon by digging and selling clams.
“We wanted to have a clam basket so people could see what she would have been carrying,” Holtz said.
Another centerpiece of the exhibit, though not nearly as old, is an original piece of art the museum commissioned for the opening, using funds from a $3,500 grant from King County 4Culture.
Shaun Peterson, a notable Puyallup artist with ancestral ties to Vashon, was chosen to create the piece, which features the octopus, or devilfish in the Puyallup tradition, made from water-cut steel, glass and hand-carved cedar. The young artist is known for creating traditional South Coast Salish art with modern materials and techniques.
Holtz and Tucker said they hope the piece, which will be on permanent display at the museum, will symbolize the continuing relationship between the Puyallup tribe and Vashon. The octopus, as Peterson explained it, Holtz said, has been used as a symbol of the Puyallup tribe and can symbolize a group of people that reaches out across distances, both between bands of the tribe scattered throughout the sound and to welcome others.
“I think that in both senses the octopus is pulling together people and also reaching out with a welcome to all people,” Holtz said. “That’s why he felt it would be an appropriate symbol to put there.”
As Holtz and Tucker created the exhibit, they worked closely with a representative of the Puyallup tribe. Brandon Reynon, a tribal archaeologist who has been the pair’s main contact at the tribe, praised the effort on Vashon, saying some larger museums have permanent exhibits on the area’s Native American past, but tribe members are happy to see smaller museums work to present the area’s Native history as well. Like the women, Reynon said he doesn’t believe the Puyallup history on the island is well known.
“To have the opportunity to have our Vashon Island story told is something we’re really excited about,” he said. “(People) could walk away from the exhibit and have a whole new outlook on the island.”
Tribe members will also get involved this Sunday, when a group from Chief Leschi School, a Native American school in Puyallup, will perform for the exhibit opening.
“We’re expecting singing, dancing, drumming, traditional dress,” Holtz said.
Holtz added that she is glad the Chief Leschi students would have the opportunity to see the exhibit and she expects they will bring family members as well.
“This will be an opportunity for some of these people to think about the last 100, 150 years of history, and I hope they feel respected and acknowledged,” she said.
“Vashon Island’s Native People: Navigating the Seas of Change” will open at the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Museum for the First Friday at 6 p.m. Friday. The exhibit will be on display through March 2015. For museum locations and hours, see www.vahsonhistory.org.
The Chief Leschi School Song and Dance will perform at 2 p.m. Sunday outside the Vashon Library.