$150,000 art installation will honor history, resilience of Puyallup people

Richard Walker

Project initiated in 2015 by a retired elementary school principal as a way to ‘fill in a missing chapter of Gig Harbor’

A Coast Salish sculpture that will be installed in 2020 at a historic Puyallup village site in the Tacoma, Washington suburb of Gig Harbor, will be a tribute to the strength, resilience and enduring presence of the Puyallup people -- as well as a symbol of healing between the Native and non-Native communities.

The project is called the Honoring Project and is funded by the City of Gig Harbor and the local Kiwanis Club, with matching funds from the Puyallup Tribe. The project was initiated in 2015 by Gary Williamson, a retired elementary school principal, as a way to “fill in a missing chapter in Gig Harbor’s history book.”

Mount Rainier looms over Tacoma, Washington and the historical territory of the Puyallup Tribe. The Puyallup people know the mountain as Tacobet (təqʷúʔbəʔ), “Mother of Waters.” The nearby community of Gig Harbor raised $150,000 to commission work by a Coast Salish artist that will recognize the Puyallups as the First People of their city. The art will be placed at the site of a historical Puyallup village. (Lyn Topinka / USGS)

“Several years ago, I noticed that there are no street names, nor public art nor any formal acknowledgment of Gig Harbor’s indigenous people,” he said. “It’s time that story was told. It’s long overdue.”

The 15- by 4-foot artwork will be installed at Austin Estuary Park, which at the time of the grandparents’ grandparents was tuwawəϯqəϯ (twah-well-kax), the main village of the sxwəbabš (sk-WHUH-babsh) band of Puyallups.

The Honoring Project committee raised $150,000 for the art from the city and the Kiwanians with a match from the Puyallup Tribe and issued a request for proposals from Native American artists. The deadline for proposals is March 15. The request for proposals, or RFP, is available online here.

Traditional dancers from the Puyallup Tribe Photo: Screen capture Puyallup Tribe website

To Educate, Inspire, and Help Understand

The finished work will have a massive world of cultural relevance and survival behind it.

This area was ground zero in the Fish Wars of the 1960s and 1970s. Here in south Puget Sound, Native Americans stood up for their right to harvest fish in accordance with treaties their leaders and U.S. representatives signed 100 years earlier.

State and local law enforcement officers brutalized and jailed Native fishermen and women to prevent them from fishing in their usual and accustomed areas as allowed by the treaty. Fisheries officials and non-Native fishermen blamed Indians, who comprised 1 percent of the state’s population, for declining salmon numbers caused by recreational and commercial fishing.

A 1974 federal court decision upheld treaty fishing rights — Indians 50 percent of the available harvest, non-Indians 50 percent of the available harvest — and established Treaty Tribes as co-managers of the state’s fisheries.

But it would take time to heal the hard feelings from non-Native fishers, who thought the court’s decision was unfair; and from Indians, still bruised from decades of defending their treaty rights.

“The purpose of this project is to educate, inspire and help people understand the First People of this community,” Honoring Project committee member Mark Anderson, Cowlitz, said. “For many years, there was not a whole lot of love between the Native and non-Native communities. This will help the peace process. It’s time for understanding.”

He added, “Time has a way of healing. Hard feelings, like a cloud, will drift away if you let them.”

Puyallup culture bearer Connie McCloud this project can help build bridges of understanding between peoples. Some non-Native fishermen still have hard feelings toward Native fishermen, she said.

“But those are individuals, not the community at large,” she said. “The community is making steps [toward healing]. I believe the community supports recognizing the history of those village sites and that these lands were originally Puyallup.”

An Enduring Presence

Austin Estuary Park is a speck in the hundreds of thousands of acres that the Puyallups once occupied. But post-treaty changes at tuwawəϯqəϯ mirror changes that took place throughout the Puyallups’ historical territory.

Puyallup leaders signed the 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek, making 2.2 million acres of land available for newcomers. Much of the Puyallup Tribe’s 28.5-square-mile reservation was allotted and sold out of Indian ownership in the late 1800s and early 1900s, making way for the development of Tacoma and five other cities within the reservation boundaries.

Across the bay from the reservation, the Austin and Erickson Saw Mill was established at tuwawəϯqəϯ, becoming an important economic engine in the area and source of milled logs for construction of pole buildings throughout the region.

The City of Gig Harbor acquired the former mill site / tuwawəϯqəϯ in 2006, and for six years restored uplands and tidelands, developed trails, and made the shoreline available to the public. Meanwhile, the Puyallup Tribe has reacquired land within its nearby reservation, built economic enterprises, and invested in the restoration of habitat that has been altered by industrial development.

The Puyallup Tribe’s presence is not drowned out by the towering landscapes and political forces of the cities within its reservation. The Tribal Council issued a stop work order on the construction of a proposed liquified natural gas plant in Tacoma, citing risks to public safety and the environment; later, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency ordered another environmental impact study, ruling that the first study touted liquified natural gas as a cleaner fuel source without evidence to prove that statement.

Near freeway signs noting exits into Tacoma are signs reminding motorists they are “Entering the Puyallup Indian Reservation.” The Puyallup Tribe’s Emerald Queen Casinos and hotel are visible from Interstate 5. The Cancer Treatment Center of America on Pacific Highway is now the Puyallup-owned Salish Cancer Center. A towering welcome figure carved by Puyallup artist Shaun Peterson stands in downtown Tacoma. About 750 students attend the Puyallup Tribe’s Chief Leschi School. Annually, 3.5 million salmon and steelhead begin their journey to Puget Sound and the open Pacific Ocean from the tribe’s hatchery on the Puyallup River.

To Puyallup Tribe Chairman Bill Sterud, his tribe’s presence and sovereignty are as enduring and unchanging as the namesake river that still flows from Mount Rainier -- Tacobet (təqʷúʔbəʔ), “Mother of Waters” --- through Puyallup lands to Puget Sound.

Sterud’s statement issued during the 2018 Canoe Journey/Paddle to Puyallup will undoubtedly be reflected in the art to be installed at tuwawəϯqəϯ: “We know intimately the effects of industry and development on our culture. We must balance city living with the need to protect the way of life our ancestors practiced before freeways and industry transformed our land.”

-- Richard Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is a correspondent reporting from Anacortes, Washington. Contact him at richardmollywalker@gmail.com