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Jeromy Sullivan: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

The National Museum of the American Indian interview series Meet Native America continues today with Jeromy Sullivan.

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Jeromy Sullivan. I'm chairman of the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe.

Can you share your Native name and its English translation, or your nickname?

I don’t have a Native name. It isn’t something my family has done. Only a few Port Gamble S'Klallam families on the reservation have gone through the ceremony. This is an issue of lost culture: It’s almost impossible to practice your culture when you aren’t allowed to have any, as was the case during the periods of forced assimilation.

Where is your tribal community located?

The Port Gamble S'Klallam Reservation is located on the northern tip of the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington state. Our reservation was established in 1938.

Where is your tribe originally from?

The Port Gamble S'Klallam were originally known as the Nux Sklai Yem or Strong People. We are the descendants of the Salish people who have been well established in the Puget Sound basin and surrounding areas since 2400 B.C.

Before explorers and settlers arrived to the Pacific Northwest, there were S'Klallam villages scattered throughout the Olympic Peninsula. Our oral history tells us that one of our most important settlements was located on the shores of Port Gamble Bay, which, in the S'Klallam language, is known as Noo-Kayet. Today the site of that ancestral village, called Teekalet, is located across the bay from our reservation in the town of Port Gamble.

What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?

In 1853 the Port Gamble Mill was established by the Puget Mill Company at the S'Klallam village of Teekalet. For a time my ancestors lived on the spit adjacent to Port Gamble Bay, but soon they were moved across the water to an area we know today as Point Julia. Oral history tells us that my tribal ancestors agreed to move away from their established village in exchange for enough lumber for each family to build a home and jobs as long as the mill remained operational.

This agreement would shape the lives of the Port Gamble S'Klallam people forever. Many Port Gamble S'Klallam families can trace back several generations who worked full time at the mill. Tribal historians estimate that, conservatively, in the mill’s 142 years of operation, Port Gamble S'Klallam members worked the equivalent of 500 years. While the mill displaced the S'Klallam people from a key settlement, it also strangely kept us together. While other tribes scattered with the industrialization of America, the Port Gamble S'Klallam stayed relatively intact because, in part, of the employment opportunities available through the mill.

After 142 years of operation, the mill shut its doors in 1995. It remains the longest operating sawmill in U.S. history—in no small part due to the work of my tribe!

Unfortunately, during the mill’s tenure, it also deposited untold levels of woody debris and toxic sentiments into Port Gamble Bay, which is an irreplaceable fishing and shellfish harvesting area for the Port Gamble S'Klallams.

Twenty years after the mill’s closing, the Department of Ecology has negotiated with Pope Resources, the company liable for the mill’s actions, to clean up Port Gamble Bay. Work began this fall and signifies a huge milestone for my tribe. While our ancestral villages can never be restored, this cleanup will ensure that our tribal members will be able to practice their treaty rights for generations to come.

How is your tribal government set up?

In 1992, the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe became one of the first self-governing tribes in the United States and has since assumed control of its Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service programs. By being in control of these programs, we have been able to expand and improve services to our tribal members. For example, we were the first tribe in Washington state to introduce a program of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), and we were also the first tribe in the nation to be able to offer independent foster care, adoption, and guardianship services.

Our tribal government is divided into two branches: Tribal Government Administration and Tribal Government Services. A six-member Tribal Council, which includes my position as chairman, governs the tribe.

To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.