The name Skokomish (pronounced sko-KO-mish) comes from two words meaning “big river people,” skookum and mish (a suffix found on many Northwest tribal names meaning “people”). These words are most likely a combination of Chinook Jargon (see Chinook entry) and Lutshootseed, a language family spoken by most of the Coast Salish tribes. The word came from one of their village names, sqoqc’bes (“people of the river”). The tribe began using this name after they moved to the reservation. Prior to that the people called themselves tuwáduxq or Twana. Some tribe members have returned to using this name.
The Skokomish traditionally lived in the Hood Canal drainage basin west of Puget Sound, Washington. Today they live on the Skokomish Reservation, which covers 5,000 acres on the Skokomish River delta, where the river empties into the Great Bend of the Hood Canal.
In 1792 there were about eight hundred Skokomish. The Twana, or Skokomish, reservation had a population of 1,029. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 737 people identified themselves as Skokomish. The 2000 census showed 698 Skokomish, and 814 people who claimed some Skokomish heritage.
Origins and group affiliations
Skokomish was the largest of nine Twana Indian communities that lived near one another and shared many customs. What is now known as the Skokomish tribe is mostly made up of Twana Indians and the descendants of the other tribes who share the Skokomish Reservation. The closest neighbors of the Twana were the Klallam (Clallam), the Squaxon, the Suquamish, and the Satsop. They also traded with the Makah and Chehalis. Enemies included the Lekwiltok Kwakiutl, who raided their villages for slaves and possessions, the Chimakum, the Snohomish, and the Cowichan.
For thousands of years, the Skokomish people have had a cultural, spiritual, and economic dependence on the Skokomish River where they make their home. Fishing has always been the mainstay of their economy. In the 1990s the river was named one of the most endangered in the United States. The Skokomish are engaged in efforts to encourage the state and federal government to restore the river’s natural abundance of animal and plant life.
Early contact with whites
The Skokomish probably had their first actual contact with Europeans in 1792, when British explorers led by Captain George Vancouver (1757–1798) explored Puget Sound and Hood Canal. The Skokomish already had experienced an epidemic of smallpox, brought to their region by Europeans, and they already owned European metal goods, probably obtained in trade from other tribes. For three decades after Vancouver’s visit, there was little contact between them and Europeans.
After trading posts were established by the British at Fort Langley in 1827 and Fort Nisqually in 1833, the Skokomish had wider contact with Europeans. They were exposed not only to European goods but also to the people who worked for Europeans, such as Iroquois (see entry) and Native Hawaiians. The Skokomish traded salmon for European goods, especially firearms and clothing.
The United States and Great Britain jointly occupied the Skokomish lands before 1846, around the time Americans first began arriving in the Puget Sound region. In that year the two countries agreed to place all tribes in the area under the control of the U.S. government. The Skokomish signed several treaties giving their land to the United States. In a short time new settlers flooded into the former Twana lands.
1792: Probable first contact between Skokomish and Europeans occurs.
1827: Fort Langley is founded, and Skokomish lifestyle changes as they trade with whites.
1846–55: A series of treaties gives most of the Skokomish homeland to the United States.
1855: The Treaty of Point No Point is signed.
1857: The Skokomish settle on reservation land.
1874: The U.S. government increases reservation size to 4,987 acres.
1938: Tribal constitution adopted.
1965: The Skokomish tribe receives an award of about $374,000 for claims against the government.
1974: The Boldt Decision reaffirms Native fishing rights.
1976: The Skokomish and several other tribes form the South Puget Intertribal Planning Agency (SPIPA).
Treaties strip Skokomish land
In 1854 Isaac Ingalls Stevens (1818–1862), governor of Washington Territory, attempted to establish treaties with nearly every tribe in the region. He wanted to take over as much land as possible for white settlers. He hoped to accomplish this by doing away with Native land titles, placing tribes on reservations, and getting the Native Americans to adopt the white way of life. In 1859, as a result of the 1855 Treaty of Point No Point, the Skokomish were restricted, along with other tribes who spoke a similar language, to a reservation located on a small portion of their former lands.
Originally the people were moved to a 3,840-acre reservation following the signing of the treaty. Other tribes united under Nisqually (see entry) Chief Leschi (1808–1858) to resist the forced relocation to the reservations. Following the Puget Sound Indian War (1855–56), Stevens was removed from his position, and the government enlarged the size of most reservations. An executive order on February 25, 1874, increased the Skokomish reservation to 4,986.97 acres. At that time the tribe took the name Skokomish, one of their nine original village names. Many people, however, did not move to the reservation, deciding instead to take jobs as loggers, mill workers, and canoers.
Fight for tribal rights
Between 1900 and 1960 the Skokomish faced many difficulties. Around 1900 the tribe lost the sweetgrass it used to make baskets because a white farmer built dikes on land at the mouth of the Skokomish River, preventing the grass from growing. At about the same time the tribe’s shellfish-gathering activities were largely restricted because the state claimed that it controlled the tidelands. Then, in the late 1920s, the city of Tacoma built two dams on the North Fork of the Skokomish River. This resulted in the destruction of major tribal sites and limited the people’s ability to get to saltwater fishing sites. Finally Potlatch State Park opened in 1960 on one of the best pieces of Skokomish coastline. The Skokomish were successful in legal cases they brought before the federal and state courts on all four of these issues.
In 1965 the tribe received an award of about $374,000, which they used to purchase a fish processing plant and improve tribal housing. In 1974 the Boldt Decision reaffirmed Native fishing rights obtained under treaties signed in the 1850s. Once again the Skokomish people could fish in waters outside the reservation area. Responsibility for enforcing Skokomish fishing rights now lies with tribal courts and the tribal fish patrol rather than with the state. The Skokomish people have also received training in fish management and biology and have benefited financially from taxes they impose on non-Native fishermen.
Along with regaining their traditional livelihoods, the late 1970s and early 1980s ushered in an interest in customs of the past. Ceremonies that had not been practiced for seventy years or more were reestablished. There was also a reemerging interest in basketry, carving, and dance. The Skokomish Tribe Historic Preservation Office collected artifacts, and elders taught members of the younger generation these dying arts.
Skokomish oral tradition tells of first beings, creatures with both animal and human qualities. A figure called the Transformer changed these first beings into objects like stones as well as guardian spirits and human beings, then sent them to Earth after teaching humans the proper way to live.
The Skokomish worshiped the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth. They thought the Sun rewarded good behavior, and the Moon punished bad behavior. They believed in other spiritual beings, such as earth dwarfs who could steal souls, forest giants who stole food, and underwater creatures who took on the form of humans.
The Skokomish believed that every person possessed two souls: a life soul that caused lingering sickness when it left the body and a heart soul that died with the body. After death the life soul went on a long journey through the land of the dead, and then started life over again in a new form. Souls of dead infants did not go on this journey, but became guardian spirits who guided humans on their path through life.
People attained their guardian spirits through a vision quest (see “Vision quest”). Guardian spirits granted people different types of power: power for success in war, power in gambling, power in hunting on land or sea, or power in attaining wealth. They sometimes even provided protection from minor things like fleabites.
In 1839 and 1840 two Catholic priests taught the Skokomish about Christianity. Although the people seemed at first to be enthusiastic students, priests and missionaries who came later had little luck in finding converts. In modern times people on the reservation prefer the Indian Shaker Church (see Hupa and Chilula entry) and the Assemblies of God religion.
The Skokomish and other Twana people spoke a dialect (variety) of the Salishan language family. Each tribe spoke a slightly different dialect. Between 1975 and 1980 the Twana Language and Culture Project was developed to help keep the language alive. Volunteers used recordings from older members of the tribe to create a Twana language dictionary and textbooks, which are used in public schools as well as in the tribe’s preschool.
Although the last fluent speaker of Twana died in 1980, some of the tribe’s elders remember the language, and people are working to bring it back. One man who has played an important role in reviving both the Twana language and culture is Bruce Miller (1944–2005) A few basic Twana words are below:
- dakas … “one”
- usali … “two”
- cha’as … “three”
- busas … “four”
- sts’hwas … “five”
- stibat … “man”
- sladai … “woman”
- sluqatl … “sun”
- slutlub … “moon”
- ka … “water”
Skokomish villages had no formal government. The head of the wealthiest house in the village usually took on a leadership role in matters such as settling disputes.
The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 encouraged American tribes to form their own elected governments supervised by the U.S. government. The Skokomish Tribal Government chose that option and was established in 1938. The tribal government is comprised of seven elected members, who serve staggered four-year terms. The council selects a chairperson, vice chairperson, and secretary/treasurer, as well as a tribal manager to handle administrative affairs and to enforce tribal policies. The people also have a general council led by a president.
The Skokomish economy was based mainly on gathering foods and fishing. They had three distinct types of hunters: sea hunters, land hunters, and fowl catchers. The sea hunters used harpoons from a two-man canoe. To catch seals, the men surprised them and clubbed them or drove them onto sharpened stakes or into nets. They traded sealskins for European products. While fishermen made use of beached whales, they did not go out and hunt them.
Skokomish men carved objects out of wood, and women made cords and ropes, mats, and baskets out of cedar bark and blankets of mountain goat wool and dog fur. The people sometimes traded these objects with other tribes or with Europeans.
In the early twenty-first century many Skokomish people work in logging and fishing companies, but these industries are declining because of over-harvesting. Since the 1970s the tribe has been working to support itself through a variety of ventures. With new land purchased for economic development, the tribe has created a planning department that assists in the development of retail and service businesses, commercial sites, and community facilities. Tourism and recreation also create income.
The Skokomish own a fish hatchery and a fish processing plant. The people also harvest timber and lease forestland to lumber companies. Although their land is not suitable for most agriculture, the tribe harvests huckleberries, salal, and juvenile cedar in addition to a variety of mushrooms that they market internationally and medicinal herbs that they use and sell. The largest employers, however, are the tribal government and the casino.
Families were made up of a man, his wife or wives, and their children, as well as one or two unmarried relatives. Wealthy people sometimes had slaves. Several families lived together in one large house, and each family had its own section of the home.
The Skokomish built winter and summer homes. The entire community helped members of the upper class build their houses, and then joined in the feasting to celebrate the home’s completion.
Winter homes were large rectangular structures made of cedar planks. The roof was sloped and was supported by two main posts, painted inside with symbols of the families’ guardian spirits. The dirt floors and walls were covered with mats, and walls were plugged with moss for insulation. Along the walls were bed platforms. Each family had a fireplace next to their bed space, and the area underneath the bed was used for storage.
Lightweight summer shelters that could easily be moved were set up at hunting, gathering, or fishing sites. They were usually square and held a single family. The walls were made of cattail matting and covered with bark. A cooking fire was placed outside the entrance of each home.
A special building was set up for important tribal celebrations like potlatches (gift-giving ceremonies).
Clothing and adornment
In warm weather men went naked or wore cedar bark vests and breechcloths (garments with front and back flaps that hung from the waist). Women wore only a short apron of shredded cedar bark, and upper-class women sometimes added a goatskin skirt that was short in front and long in back. During rainy weather women covered themselves with square capes of shredded bark tied in the front.
During cooler weather men added a knee-length buckskin shirt, buckskin trousers or leggings, or bearskin leggings with the hair left on. Fur caps of bearskin or coonskin and deerskin moccasins and mittens provided warmth in extreme cold. Fur robes and blankets were also worn, the type of fur depending on the wealth and importance of the wearer. The wealthiest people wore sea otter blankets. Robes made of mountain goat wool were also quite valuable. Deer and raccoon skins, though, were more common.
Both men and women wore ear ornaments made of pieces of shell connected to cattail fiber loops. After contact with Europeans, silver ear pendants and earrings became popular. Wealthy people often wore shell ornaments hanging from their noses. Women had necklaces and bracelets made of shell, bone, and animal claws. Both sexes wore ankle bracelets. While women usually had their ankles, chins, and lower legs tattooed in stripes, men were rarely tattooed. Face and body painting was done only for ceremonies such as spirit dances or joining secret societies. On those occasions the painted design depicted a person’s guardian spirit or the special power a person possessed.
Men usually wore their hair shoulder length or longer, gathered in back with a thong or knot. Women wore their hair loose or in a single braid. Slaves and women in mourning had short hair.
Four different kinds of salmon made up the primary food of the Skokomish. Salmon were taken with dip nets and harpoons. The tribe also ate other sea creatures, such as sea lions, seals, mollusks, and beached whales. The people hunted deer, black bear, mountain goat, beaver, muskrat, and waterfowl. Each year an elk hunt took place in the Olympic Mountains.
Women gathered various plants throughout the spring, summer, and fall, so in winter the tribe could focus on social and ceremonial occasions. Plant foods that grew in the area included wild carrots, camas, salmonberries, salal, huckleberries, thimbleberries, ferns, and many other sprouts, roots, and bulbs. Many varieties of mushrooms grew well in the marshy soil. Women also harvested nuts and acorns, which they roasted to rid them of their acidic taste.
Skok Salmon Cheeks
This recipe came from L. A. Duerr, a Yup’ik (see entry), who learned it from Denny Hurtado, Skokomish Nation chairman. Duerr recalls:
I had to be bribed to try these. They look remarkably like little cheeks too, but if you think about it, it is a lot like … the rest of the fish. And all those darn seals who eat the salmon cheeks out of the gill nets can’t be wrong. No kidding—if you taste these over rice you will never throw another salmon head away again.
- Good Unsalted Butter
- Fresh Salmon Heads
- Sea Salt
Take one salmon head at a time and microwave on HIGH for four to eight minutes depending on size of salmon head and may take longer for frozen heads.
Remove from microwave.
With a fork lift the salmon’s cheek gill flap, and scoop out the round, opaque, little cheek. Try not to eat it right out of the fish head.…
If the cheeks are not quite done, you will know because it will be challenging to get the cheek out of the gill flap thing.
When a salmon head is really done, it is gooey and easy to take apart.
[Serve with melted butter and sea salt.]
Duerr, L. A. “Skok Salmon Cheeks.” Native Tech Recipes. (accessed on September 9, 2007).
Tribal medicine men called shaman (pronounced SHAH-mun or SHAY-mun) received their healing powers from a guardian spirit. Two kinds of spirits appeared to shaman: a two-headed serpent-like being and an alligator-like being. Curing was a public event, and relatives and neighbors of the patient watched and participated in the healing ceremony. First the shaman sang a special power song to find out what ailed the patient. Then he cured the person by removing the sick-making object or by returning the life soul or guardian spirit that had been stolen. Shaman could also cause harm and even death. They were often regarded with suspicion and sometimes even killed, if they were suspected of harming someone.
Herbs were an important part of healing. Whereas shaman cured spirit-caused illnesses, plants aided in recovery from many physical sicknesses. The tribe still harvests medicinal herbs such as rhubarb, wild ginger, maidenhair fern, plantain, devil’s club, and Labrador plant. Herbs not used for tribal purposes are sold to alternative medicine companies and to the cosmetic industry.
Most Skokomish art was of a religious nature. People used hard, sharp implements to peck at stone to make abstract designs. They made images of supernatural beings on articles used for ceremonial purposes or images reflecting the owner’s power on house posts.
Shaman were known for carving unusual wood figures out of red cedar. These sculptures were often legless torsos with oval heads that were flattened in the front and painted in red and black on a white foreground. Instead of legs they had pointed stakes that were set in the ground during ceremonies. Other common ceremonial objects were staffs topped with deer-hoof rattles used in healing ceremonies.
The Twana created watertight baskets and waterproof clothing from cedar bark, and women wove blankets of cedar bark, mountain goat wool, dog hair, bird down, and fireweed fluff. They spun their yarn on their thighs without a spindle. To get the materials they needed, the Twana traded with the upriver people for mountain goat wool and with the saltwater people, who kept a breed of wool-bearing dogs, for fur. One early explorer reported seeing “about forty dogs in a drove, shorn [shaved] close to the skin like sheep.” The Twana also traded for hemp. With this and other materials they gathered, women created baskets adorned with geometric and stylized animals.
Tribal members were divided into one of three classes based on wealth and their ancestry: the upper class; the lower class, or freemen; and slaves, who were usually war captives.
Members of the Skokomish upper class practiced head flattening, a common custom in the Pacific Northwest. Shortly after birth they placed a baby in a cradle and tied a padded board to its forehead to mold the head into a desired shape. Children were kept in these special cradles until they could walk.
At around the age of eight, both boys and girls engaged in vision quests to find the guardian spirits that would guide them through life. These quests were held often both before and after puberty. They started with fasting (not eating or drinking) and bathing. Older boys shaved their beards and body hair. After going without food and drink for several days, the youngsters fell into a trance, made contact with a spirit (who might appear in animal or human form), and received their personal power and a special song. Sometimes guardian spirits were inherited from other family members.
Menstrual blood was considered extremely powerful, even harmful. Upon a girl’s first menstruation, she went to an isolated hut. There she sat on a mat and was instructed on how to perform a woman’s work, such as food gathering and cooking. When a girl of high social rank came out of this isolation, her parents gave a feast announcing that she was eligible for marriage.
Boys were kept away from girls in an effort to keep them focused on finding their guardian spirit. This separation led many boys to decide to marry when they were young.
Courtship and marriage
Most people chose marriage partners from outside their village. Especially in the case of upper-class families, parents usually arranged marriages. The process began with a formal request by the groom’s parents to the bride’s parents, then the two families exchanged gifts. While poor couples could easily obtain divorces, it was more difficult for the rich and therefore was rare. Widows or widowers were expected to marry a close relative of their deceased mate, in order to keep the children of the couple in the groom’s village.
Upper-class families, who were the only ones who could afford it, often held feasts, called potlatches, to show off their wealth. Lavish gifts were given to other members of the tribe.
In modern times Skokomish people gather each year with other Native Americans for various celebrations, including the Treaty Day celebration in January (which is open to the public), the First Plant Ceremony in April, the First Salmon Ceremony in August, and the First Elk Ceremony in October. The tribe also sponsors an elder’s picnic in August.
Legend of the Dog Salmon People
Many Native stories tell of the first beings who had both human and animal characteristics. Some of these beings were later changed into humans. The Skokomish tell this tale of their origin. It also explains why the tribe holds the First Salmon Ceremony when they catch the initial dog salmon (also called chum salmon, Pacific salmon, or Keta salmon) of the season.
This is the story of how the Dog Salmon people of the North Fork Skokomish River began.
In the time when the first human beings lived in the land and were learning how to survive, they learned from the animals at the beginning of what we would call history.
The chief of the Dog Salmon now knew it was time for his daughter-in-law and his grandchildren to return to the land of their mother’s birth.
The killer whales are the guardians of the great salt waters.
They escorted our ancestors, the Dog Salmon People, from the great salt water that we call the land of foods, all the way back to where Hood Canal and the Skokomish River meet.
It was here they danced the dance of the Salmon People.
Hands on their hips, back and forth they danced, out of the water on their tails.
When they reached the home of their mother, they danced from the water on to the land.
Now they were humans.
And it was they who became the ancestors of our Skokomish People.
And it was at this time that our ancestors vowed to honor the Dog Salmon People with the first salmon ritual, till the end of time.
Sobiyax (Bruce Miller). “Skokomish Tribe: Legend of the Dog Salmon People.” Andrea Wilbur-Sigo. (accessed on September 9, 2007).
When a Skokomish person died, a series of rituals was held, beginning with a wake given by the family of the deceased. Professional undertakers prepared the body for viewing, and relatives and friends brought gifts to honor the dead person. The body was removed from the home through a hole in the wall and taken to a cemetery, where it was placed either in a box in the ground or in a canoe on a frame. A funeral feast followed the burial. There the personal property of the deceased was given away, and the widow cut her hair to show her sorrow.
Current tribal issues
The Skokomish River has always been the social and economic focus of the tribe. The river has suffered damage because of clear-cut logging (the total removal of a stand of trees) on the river’s South Fork and unregulated hydroelectric development on the North Fork. Run-off from the clear-cut slopes clogs the river with sediment, greatly reduces the number of salmon, and contributes to increased flooding in the Skokomish Valley. In the North Fork, the City of Tacoma’s Cushman Hydroelectric Project completely blocks fish passage and pipes the waters from the North Fork out of its watershed (the area drained by the river system) to a power plant. This starves 17 miles (27 kilometers) of river of its flows. These developments have damaged the conditions of fish and wildlife.
In 1996 the Skokomish Tribe joined with conservation groups and nearby residents to form an action plan for restoring healthy conditions for the natural plant and animal life of the Skokomish River. The tribe has tried to influence the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to require the City of Tacoma to restore the river to its watershed and to reduce the damage that has been done to the tribe’s lands and that of others who live nearby.
The Skokomish have also joined other tribes to form the South Puget Intertribal Planning Agency (SPIPA). SPIPA’s mission is to deliver social, human and health services and provide training and technical assistance, resource development, and planning to members. The agency does grant-writing for funding and helps tribal leadership as well as individual tribe members.
In August 2007 the Lummi tribe invited Northwest tribes to an Intertribal Potlatch, the first to be held since 1937. Tribal leaders described it as a “healing journey” as well as an expression of native pride. It also was intended to increase the usage of the Native American’s traditional waterways and promote closer relationships among the tribes. Each year a different tribe will host the canoe journey. The Skokomish participated in this movement to reintroduce Native customs to younger tribal members.
Bruce Miller (1944–2005), an artist, teacher, and historian, was also a storyteller and community leader. He retold tales passed down to him by older relatives. Miller also played a key role in reviving the Twana language and culture. A skilled basketweaver and carver, he spoke and taught the Twana language and was responsible for reintroducing the winter longhouse ceremonies and the first elk ceremony. In 1982 he organized the building of the first traditional longhouse on the Skokomish Reservation in more than 110 years. In 1992 he received the Governor’s Heritage Award.
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Edward D. Castillo (Cahuilla-Luiseño), Native American Studies Program, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California
Daniel Boxberger, Department of Anthropology, Western Washington University