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Traditional Coast Salish house posts call attention to rich tribal history

SAN JUAN ISLAND, Wash. - Like other islands in Washington's Puget Sound, San Juan has a rich tribal history.

Historically, the Lummi, Samish and Swinomish tribes spent summers on San Juan Island hunting, fishing and collecting berries for winter.

A Lummi longhouse was in use on Garrison Bay when British troops arrived in 1858 during a territory dispute with the United States.

Shell middens are prominent at the former American and British military camps. Native artwork is easily found in local art galleries and some 238 residents claim Native American or First Nations ancestry.

Still, there is no official acknowledgement of the island's tribal heritage.

A group of residents hopes to change that. They are trying to raise $50,000 for two Coast Salish house posts carved by noted Musqueam artist Susan Point. The house posts would be used as a visual entry to the town of Friday Harbor and to call attention to the island's tribal heritage.

The 17-foot carved posts are titled "Interaction." One post depicts the relationship between the Puget Sound orca and its favored prey, the salmon. The other post depicts a Coast Salish woman and a mountain lion, representing the relationship between native people and wildlife. A cross beam connecting the two posts depicts eagles, which are prominent in the region.

Barbara Marrett of the Portals of Welcome Committee persuaded the Friday Harbor Port Commission in June to allow the posts to be installed in a park overlooking Friday Harbor Marina. Her cause was boosted by petitions signed by residents and a resolution of support signed by the San Juan County Board of Realtors.

"It's a tribute to the Salish people," Marrett said of the project. "These posts are done by an internationally recognized artist, so from an arts side they would be a draw to art lovers. And people like to come here because they want to know about tribal heritage."

Marge Workman, 81, is a Swinomish resident of San Juan Island and welcomes interest in a local culture and way of life that rapidly passed into history.

Her childhood memories of the 1920s are vivid: Big Coast Salish canoes slicing through Haro Strait between Canada's Gulf Islands and America's San Juan; her grandmother fishing for herring off nearby Waldron Island; people building fish traps for salmon and sewing fishing nets out of bark fiber; and edible seaweed collected during summer low tides and dried for market.

"Everything was so plentiful around here - herring, clams, salmon," she said. "That was our way of life."

Gone are the longhouses her family knew on San Juan Island's Mitchell Bay and Stuart Island's Reid Harbor.

"I've always felt that something should be preserved on this island," she said. "When I got older, people didn't have any sympathy for the Indians. They looked down upon us, believe me."

Today, that indifference has been replaced by interest in native culture, history and community life.

"People are calling me all the time - asking questions, writing books."

Art style indigenous to the Northwest Coast

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Point said her goal with the San Juan project is to "re-instate the footprint of the Salish peoples on these lands."

Point is internationally known for her distinctive jewelry, prints, paintings and monumental pieces in wood and glass. Traditional Salish art and culture form the basis of her work.

"Coast Salish art is relatively unknown to most people today," Point said in the book, "Susan Point, Coast Salish artist," by Michael Kew and Peter Macnair.

"I am trying to revive traditional Coast Salish art - and also attempting to educate the public to the fact that there was, and still is, another style of art indigenous to the Northwest Coast."

Since 1982, Point has completed 53 commissioned works and participated in 56 shows and exhibits.

Point's house posts - carved cedar posts traditionally used in the interiors of tribal homes - are on display at Vancouver International Airport, the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, the Victoria Convention Centre, and Seahawks stadium in Seattle.

Time running out for project

As of Feb. 3, "Interaction" had not been sold. However, Point had lost hope in the fund-raising effort and expected another buyer to purchase "Interaction."

"Unfortunately it does not sound like her housepost will be finding the home she had hoped for in the San Juan Islands," said Denise Wilson, who works for Point at Coast Salish Arts in Vancouver.

"It is very disappointing that the fund-raising did not go as well as anticipated. However, this was no reflection on the people that volunteered their time and efforts. Susan was very impressed with their organization and professionalism."

San Juan Island has 6,500 residents; 2,000 of them live in Friday Harbor, the island's only incorporated town. Residents raise $120,000 a year for United Way and thousands more for a community foundation and a group that gives scholarships to all high school seniors.

Marrett acknowledged that the committee is up against some tough competition for donor dollars.

An anonymous couple pledged $10,000 to the Portals of Welcome Committee but wants to see broad-based community support before turning the money over; the committee has since raised $1,150 from local businesses.

If "Interaction" is sold before the committee can raise the money, then it may have to set its sights on another work.

"We are definitely not through with our efforts," Marrett said. She said her committee is planning a fund-raiser.

A fund has been established solely for the acquisition of these posts. Checks can be made payable to Portals of Welcome Project, 585 Smugglers Cove Road, Friday Harbor, WA 98250. Contributors will receive a letter of acknowledgement of donation to a 501C tax-exempt entity. For more information, call Arctic Raven Gallery at (360) 378-3433.

Correspondent Richard Walker is editor of The Journal of the San Juan Islands in Friday Harbor, Wash. His great-grandmother was a Yaqui from Sonora, Mexico.