Published on April 16, 2012 by Amy
The Duwamish (pronounced [dxʷdɐwʔabʃ] in Lushootseed) are a Lushootseed Native American tribe in western Washington, and the indigenous people of metropolitan Seattle, where they have been living since the end of the last glacial period (c. 8000 BCE, 10,000 years ago). The Duwamish tribe descends from at least two distinct groups from before intense contact with people of European ancestry—the People of the Inside (the environs of Elliott Bay) and the People of the Large Lake (Lake Washington)—and continues to evolve both culturally and ethnically. By historic language, the Duwamish are (Skagit-Nisqually) Lushootseed; Lushootseed is a Salishan language. Adjacent tribes throughout the Puget Sound-Strait of Georgia basin were, and are, interconnected and interrelated, yet distinct.
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The present-day Duwamish tribe developed in parallel with the times of the Treaty of Point Elliott and its aftermath in the 1850s. Although not recognized by the U.S. federal government, the Duwamish remain an organized tribe with roughly 500 enrolled members as of 2004. In 2009, the Duwamish tribe opened the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center on purchased land near their ancient settlement of Ha-AH-Poos (also written hah-AH-poos) in West Seattle near the mouth of the Duwamish River.
Before white settlement
What is now Seattle has been inhabited since the end of the last glacial period (c. 8000 BCE—10,000 years ago). Sites at West Point in Discovery Park (in Seattle’s Magnolia district) date back at least 4,000 years. Villages at the then-mouth of the Duwamish River in what is now the Industrial District had been inhabited since the 6th century CE.
Thirteen prominent villages were in what is now the City of Seattle. The people living around Elliott Bay, the Duwamish, Black and Cedar Rivers were collectively known as the doo-AHBSH, “People of the Inside” (see below for more detailed discussion of this name). There were four prominent villages on Elliott Bay and the then-estuarial lower Duwamish River . Before civil engineering, the area had extensive tidelands, abundantly rich in seafoods.
The people living around Lake Washington were collectively known as the hah-choo-AHBSH, “People of the Large Lake” (see below for more detailed discussion of this name). At the time of initial major European contact, these people considered themselves distinct from the related People of the Inside, with whom they are joined in today’s Duwamish tribe. Prior to the construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in the 1910s, Lake Washington drained into the Black River in what is now Renton. The Black River joined the Cedar and White (now Green) rivers to become the Duwamish River and empty into southeast Elliott Bay. With ever-increasing European contact, the People of the Large Lake and the People of the Inside became unified under the rubric of the Duwamish Tribe.
There were numerous villages in what would become the Seattle metropolitan area as well as the nearby Snoqualmie River valley. Common to Coast Salish, villages were diffuse: people dispersed in the spring, congregated for the salmon in the summer, and wintered in village longhouses.
In spring, salmonberry shoots and bracken fern fiddleheads were foraged, while men hunted deer or elk grazing on the skunk cabbage or the anthropogenic grasslands. Camas from nearby prairies would be gathered or traded. The grasslands encouraged berries, fern roots, bulbs and other useful plants. Garry Oaks, whose thick bark helps them survive fires, are typically associated with prairies, and their presence at Seward Park and Martha Washington Parks suggests that anthropogenic grasslands extended between them. They may have been planted for their edible acorns.
In summer and fall, thimbleberries, salal, raspberries, salmonberries, trailing blackberries, serviceberries, strawberries, huckleberries, and others were foraged. The berries were eaten fresh, or dried and formed into cakes to preserve them for winter. Mixed with dried fish and oil in recipes, pemmican made hearty late winter fare or compact, hardy provision for travel. Women and children would gather important wetland plants such as cattails for mats and wapato (“Indian potatoes”) for food. Crayfish and freshwater mussels were available in the lake.
Shellfish and tidal resources were available year round, limited only by red tide or similar infrequent closures. From midsummer through November, life revolved around the iconic salmon s√ʔuládxʷ and realization of its inspiring power and wealth, both corporeal and spiritual. Salmon returned to virtually every stream with enough flow; among these streams was sqa’ts1d (“blocked mouth”), now called Genesee Creek, which formerly drained the Rainier Valley. The name of the creek suggests that a fishing weir in place blocked the mouth of the stream during part of the spawning season. Such weirs were made from the willows that occur abundantly along the lake shore. Fish were dried on racks to preserve them for the winter months.
During the long wet winter and early spring, the diet of dried fish and berries was supplemented by hunting ducks, beaver, muskrat, raccoon, otter, and bear. Winters were for construction and repair, for the arts, socializing and ceremonies, and for stories in a rich oral tradition.
Life was, however, not quite idyllic. Northern Coast Salish and Wakashan from harder climates to the north were wont to raid. Food resources varied, and resources were not always sufficient to last through to spring. The size of the salmon run has always varied tremendously from year to year. Nutritional diseases were not very distant. There is evidence that an extensive trade and potlatch network evolved to help distribute resources to area needs that varied year to year, and was potent and effective until the “Spirit of Pestilence” arrived: European diseases arriving in the 1770s ravished the region for more than a century.