SAN JUAN ISLANDS, Wash. – These waters have been the marine highway of the region’s first peoples since the glaciers retreated an estimated 15,000 years ago, leaving behind a network of sounds and straits dotted by islands.
These waters have been, and are today, central to the life of the region’s first peoples. “When the tide is out, the table is set,” is an old indigenous saying there. In treaties signed in the mid-1850s, the great-great-grandfathers of today’s first peoples preserved their fishing and harvesting rights on these waters. Today, the treaty signers’ descendants are active stewards of the marine environment.
The first peoples called these waters “Whulge.” Late-comers gave the sounds and straits a jumble of foreign names. For example, the San Juan Islands are bounded by the Strait of Georgia to the north, Haro Strait to the west, Rosario Strait to the east, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the south. The area is often called Puget Sound, which is a misnomer, because Puget Sound begins at Admiralty Inlet to the southeast.
But now, these waters have a collective name: the Salish Sea.
The Washington State Board on Geographic Names approved the designation Oct. 30; the term has been adopted by the British Columbia Geographical Names office and will be considered for adoption for federal use by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. The Geographical Names Board of Canada has approved a resolution to adopt the name contingent on U.S. approval.
The designation does not change or eliminate the names of any of the several bodies of water within the Salish Sea on either side of the U.S.-Canadian border. However, cartographers must use “Salish Sea” on all maps and in all atlases.
The designation is already used by some scientists to describe the unified ecosystem and habitats of these waters. Supporters say the name recognizes this confluence of straits for what it is – an inland sea – and recognizes the Coast Salish peoples who were the first residents of the lands around this sea.
The sea is still central to the lives of the first peoples of Vancouver Island to the west, the Olympic Peninsula to the south, mainland Washington state to the east, and lower mainland British Columbia to the north.
The Salish Sea designation was proposed to the state board by Bert Webber, a retired professor of marine biology from Bellingham. Naturalist Shann Weston of San Juan Island was one of his students at Western Washington University.
She said the designation “Salish Sea” will help people see the body of water as a single bioregion that knows no political boundaries. She said the designation will help people understand how our lives impact the marine environment.
“It acknowledges a bioregion that’s not subject to political boundaries that are only 147 years old,” she told The Journal of the San Juan Islands. “It’s a cohesive bioregion. It also makes it excellent for us to interpret what’s really happening here with our whales and salmon that cross over that little dotted (boundary) line.”
Dr. Wayne Suttles, the late anthropologist who spent much of his career studying Coast Salish culture and language, was a long-time proponent of the Salish Sea designation. He shuddered at the common reference to this confluence of straits as Puget Sound. He always referred to it as an unnamed inland sea, and felt the Salish Sea designation was appropriate because it recognized the Coast Salish peoples who made their home in the straits.
In lectures, he tried to get listeners to see the sea from the perspective of the early first peoples who traveled the waters, and fished and harvested in the area.
“In a map he did some 25 or 30 years ago, he took the entire Pacific Northwest and turned it, so you saw it as a circular sea with all the tribes around this half circle,” his son, Malcolm, said. “For trade, they didn’t go ‘north-south’ or ‘up a passage.’ Their travel was all based on that being an inland sea. If you look at the map that way, it makes a difference.”
In Canada, Chemainus First Nation representative George Harris raised the idea of the Salish Sea designation at a First Nations Summit in 2008, and it won immediate support. Aboriginal Relations Minister Mike de Jong told the Victoria Times Colonist newspaper, “It is descriptive of the geographic location of the body of water, and I also think it recognizes the history of our province extends further than 150 years.”
Peter Keller, dean of social sciences at the University of Victoria, told the Times Colonist that any contemplated name change should first include consultation with First Nations.
“During the era of colonization, we assumed the right to name features that already had traditional names associated with them.”
Lois Schluter, daughter of the late Upper Skagit educator Vi Hilbert, expects her mother would have approved of the designation.
“She worked hard to preserve the language and stories, of how things were when she was growing up.”
Of the designation, Schluter said, “It sounds like an honorable thing.”