Richard Arlin Walker
Special to Indian Country Today
A channel of water in an archipelago north of Puget Sound carries the name of 19th century U.S. Army Gen. William S. Harney, notorious for whipping to death a Black woman in Missouri, leading the killing of Sicangu Lakota men, women and children in Nebraska, and taking the U.S. to the brink of armed conflict with Great Britain over a jurisdictional dispute in the Pacific Northwest.
If a proposal is approved by the Washington state Board of Geographic Names, however, the channel would be renamed in honor of Henry Cayou, a fishing, maritime and political leader of Lummi and Saanich First Nation ancestry.
The channel is located east of Canada’s Vancouver Island, between Orcas and Shaw islands in San Juan County, Washington – a point of origin for several Coast Salish peoples, including the Lhaq’temish, or Lummi.
Cayou, who died in 1959, was a successful commercial fisherman who to this day is the only Indigenous islander elected to the county’s Board of County Commissioners, on which he served for nearly three decades. He also served as a postmaster, helped found the islands’ electrical utility, and served as a regional representative of Chemawa Indian School.
It would be the second significant name change in the islands in recent years. Residents successfully petitioned the state in 2017 to change the name of Squaw Bay on Shaw Island to Reef Net Bay, a reference to the type of Native fishing that is still conducted there. And a county agency’s Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee is determining if other name changes are needed.
Ken Carrasco, a retired fisheries biologist who lives on Harney Channel, said he was spurred to propose the name change after reading histories about Harney, who died in 1889.
A further examination revealed Harney spent little time in the San Juan Islands, and an individual’s long association with a place is one of the criteria for the naming of a landmark or body of water.
“We don’t have statues here, but we do name landmarks and bodies of water after people of note who have had a great influence upon our lives — people we still hold as models for our younger people and for society in general,” Carrasco said.
“General Harney fails to meet that expectation, that standard of someone we want our lives to emulate. Henry Cayou, from everything I’ve heard, exemplifies the type of person that we can hold as a person to value.”
Carrasco and Stephanie Buffum of Shaw Island said they will post a petition on Change.org and submit a name-change application in April to the state Committee on Geographic Names. The committee will decide whether to recommend the change to the state Board on Geographic Names.
Among the early supporters of the proposal are former Lummi Nation Chairman Jay Julius; former Lummi Nation Councilman Freddie Sul ka dub' Lane; Rosie Cayou James, a Samish cultural educator and Cayou’s grand-niece; former state Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island; and several members of the Mitchell Bay Band, descendants of Indigenous people who chose to remain on the islands and not relocate to reservations after the treaty was signed in 1855.
A sacred place
The San Juan Islands sit in the center of the Salish Sea, between Vancouver Island to the west, the Strait of Georgia to the north, mainland Washington state to the east, and the Olympic Peninsula to the south. To the southeast is Admiralty Inlet, the entrance to Puget Sound. The largest islands in the archipelago are San Juan, Orcas, Lopez and Shaw.
The archipelago is a sacred place to the Lummi, Samish, Saanich and Songhees peoples. Their histories say it was on San Juan Island that their common ancestor — sweh-tuhh, the First Man — appeared. It was here that the Creator gave the people reef netting, a type of salmon fishing unique to the San Juan Islands.
The islands were the center of a vast Indigenous economic and kinship network when the British and the Americans laid claim in the 1840s. For centuries, Indigenous families traveled to and from the islands in skillfully carved cedar canoes to visit relatives, attend longhouse ceremonies, harvest resources and engage in trade.
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Much of that world was changing when Henry Cayou was born in 1869 on Orcas Island. He was one of more than 10 children born to Louis and Mary Ann Cayou. His mother was Lummi and Saanich; his father was a Kentucky-born farmer and lumberman whose ancestors hailed from France.
Harney Channel was already identified as such on navigational charts when Cayou was born, reportedly so-named for Harney because he was serving at the time as a brigadier general in command of the U.S. Army’s Department of Oregon, which included Washington Territory. In an interesting twist, one of Cayou’s younger brothers would be named General Scott Cayou, in honor of U.S. Army General Winfield Scott, who in 1859 defused the tensions started by Harney and established the peaceful joint military occupation of the islands until the territory dispute could be resolved.
When Cayou was born, British Royal Marines and U.S. Army troops were encamped on San Juan Island, awaiting settlement of the dispute. The prairies that had been maintained for centuries for the cultivation of food plants were being used by newcomers for livestock grazing. Limestone was being quarried to supply critical building material. Cedars that provided wood for longhouses and hand-carved canoes, as well as fiber for clothing and ceremonial items, were being felled to feed a growing hunger for quality lumber.
Then, in 1872, when Cayou was 3, an arbitration panel led by Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany settled the territory dispute in favor of the United States. The British Royal Marines left the island and their encampment — the former Coast Salish community of Pe’pi’ow’elh — was made available for homesteading.
In the ensuing years, young Henry Cayou learned to navigate life in two worlds. He learned to fish the traditional way from his Lummi stepfather, Pe Ell, played baseball for a team composed of Native Americans on Orcas Island, married a woman from the family of Sheiyksh (pronounced Shakes), a line of hereditary Tlingit leaders, and served as the islands’ point of contact for the Chemawa Indian School.
Cayou used his Indigenous knowledge and business acumen to prosper in the new economy, taking each stroke of fortune and further investing it. He became a successful fish trapper and seiner. In 1895, he invested in his brothers-in-law’s shipyard and over time built a fleet of fishing boats and tugs.
By 1897, he was serving as a county road supervisor on Orcas Island. In 1902, he established a 500-acre farm on Decatur Island and was appointed the island’s postmaster. In 1906, he was elected to his first of several terms on the San Juan County Board of County Commissioners. In 1907, he was elected president of the San Juan County Fruit Growers Association.
One of Cayou’s most significant legacies is one felt today each time an islander turns the lights on — the co-founding in 1937 of Orcas Power Co., the islands’ electrical utility now known as Orcas Power and Light Cooperative.
While he walked in two worlds — elected to county office before enrolled Natives had the right to vote — he never gave up his Coast Salish identity. He was listed as “Indian” on the 1910 U.S. Census and in 1919 was included in a federal census of unenrolled Indians in Washington state.
In the 1919 census, Cayou was listed as a member of the “Mitchell Bay Tribe,” a descriptor used by Office of Indian Affairs agent Charles Roblin for those who, after the treaty was signed, had chosen to stay on the islands rather than move to reservations. Most if not all of those listed, including Cayou, had ancestral or familial ties to the historical Indigenous community at Mitchell Bay. Some of Cayou’s siblings moved to reservations, however, and several of his nephews and nieces served in elective office in the Swinomish Tribe.
Carrasco said Cayou “was a bridge between cultures during a transformative time for the islands.”
Buffum, former longtime executive director of a nonprofit environmental protection organization on the islands, agreed.
She said Cayou — successful in county politics, maritime and fishing — “represents so much of what this body of water represents to people here in the San Juan Islands.”
Renaming would be ‘a just act’
Place names in the Salish Sea historically told the story of a site’s significance — a village location, the best place to harvest certain resources, the animals most common to an area, or a gateway to another geographical location.
Buffum said renaming Harney Channel to Cayou Channel would be “a just act that would carry an appropriate history of this place to future generations and honor a person worthy of emulation by future generations.”
Local historians agree.
“Henry Cayou was a major figure in the San Juan Islands and he was Native American,” said Mike Vouri, an author and retired historian for the National Park Service. “There is a dearth of Native American names [of features] in the islands and that needs to change.”
He added, “Place names reflect the values we have. If we can take these collective waters — Haro Strait, Rosario Strait, the Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca — and in 2010 name them the Salish Sea after the great Coast Salish people, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t look at other Native names that have meaning to us.”
Kevin Loftus, executive director of the San Juan Historical Society and Museum, said renaming the channel after Cayou “makes a lot of sense.”
“Names impart a historical tie-in and give us a better understanding [of a place] than something neutral,” he said. “We have road names here that tell us something about the families that lived here. Spring Street tells us there was a spring there and, though it’s now underground, it’s still there.
A place that carries the name of an individual, he said, “makes me curious as to who this person was, what they did, what kind of contributions they made to the islands.”