Reefnet fishing originated in the San Juan Islands. A net suspended between canoes simulates a reef. Salmon follow the artificial reef into a scoop net.
Courtesy Wilma Rimer Collection
Reefnet fishing originated in the San Juan Islands. A net suspended between canoes simulates a reef. Salmon follow the artificial reef into a scoop net.

‘Watershed Moment’: Pole, Story Boards Installed on Ancestral Village Site

Richard Walker

The elders remember the place names told to them by their grandparents’ grandparents, names that identify where certain resources can be found.

The elders know that their first ancestor, Sweh-tuhn, originated at Open Bay on Henry Island. They know that these islands are where the Creator taught the ancestors how to catch salmon by using nets suspended between two canoes to simulate a natural reef that salmon follow into a scoop net.

It was here at Roche Harbor, part of what was Wh’lehl-kluh, that Swinomish culture bearer Chester Cayou told young canoe pullers in the Canoe Journey about the places here where their grandparents lived and how they lived. “This is how it was, dear ones,” he told them as pullers arrived, “they loved each other, cared for each other, and shared with each other.”

It was here that Lummi culture bearer Lutie Hillaire, whose grandfather and great-grandfather were born at Wh’lehl-kluh, said, “We were here yesterday. We are here today. We will be here tomorrow.”

The People’s ties to the islands didn’t end with British and American claims to the San Juans in the mid-1800s, or the homestead era, or the relocation to reservations. And those continuing ties will be memorialized at 2 p.m. August 25 at the site where the ancestors’ longhouse was located at Pe’pi’ow’elh, also known as English Camp, part of San Juan Island National Historical Park.

The longhouse was dismantled by British troops when they established a camp there in 1859; Great Britain and the United States both claimed the island at the time and posted troops there until the dispute was settled.

A reefnet captain pole, by Temosen Charles Elliott, Tsartlip, will be installed August 25 at a Coast Salish village site on San Juan Island, now part of San Juan Island National Historical Park. (Courtesy Photo)

Representatives of the Lummi Nation and Saanich First Nation will dedicate a Reef Net Captain Totem Pole and two Salmon Story Boards at Pe’pi’ow’elh. The pole was carved by Temosen Charles Elliott, Tsartlip; the story boards were carved by Jewell Praying Wolf James, Lummi.

It will be the first significant installment of public indigenous art on the island since May 2004, when Coast Salish house posts carved by Musqueam artist Susan Point were installed in a waterfront park in Friday Harbor.

Elexis Fredy, superintendent of San Juan Island National Historical Park, expects more than 200 guests at the dedication.

“It’s been a long time coming,” she said. “This is going to be a watershed moment. A lot of relationships are waiting to be made.”

Project began in 2010

In 2010, Troy Olsen, Lummi, and Nick Claxton, Tsawout, began planning a project to teach reef-netting to the next generation. In 2014, they built a reef net and began discussions with San Juan Island National Historical Park to bring those lessons to the islands to help young ones connect to the natural and cultural history of their ancestral territory, and instill a deeper sense of place and cultural identity.

At the time, “some of our youth did not know they came from anything but reservations,” Williams said.

A youth camp, “Coast Salish Mini University: Spirit of the Sxwo'le,” took place at the national park in July 2015. “Sxwo'le” (roughly pronounced “shwallah”) is the Lummi word for reef net.

“Due to colonialism, the educational practice and value [of reef netting], known to be at the core of the Coast Salish people, was nearly lost,” Williams said. “Together, in the peace and unity of the Sxwo’le, we can reinforce the words of our treaties and proclamations and help our future generation remain the keepers of the tradition and protectors of the circle of life.”

At Coast Salish Mini University, young ones camped on ancestral land, pulled in canoes on ancestral waters, swam in the bay, explored, ate traditional foods, and shared traditional songs and dances. Elders shared their knowledge of history, language and way of life.

The week was capped by a naming ceremony at Open Bay, the People’s place of origin, for Troy Olsen and Dana Wilson of the Lummi Nation.

“Spirit of the Sxwo'le” supporters include the National Park Service, San Juan Islands National Monument, Friends of the San Juans, Northwest Indian College, Potlatch Fund, San Juan Island Conservation Corps, Indigenous Education Institute, Redfish School of Change, Saanich First Nation, and White Swan Environmental.

Other supporters include several departments of the Lummi Nation; Lummi Hereditary Chief Bill (Tsilixw) James; Lummi Youth Canoe Family; members of the Ainu, Heiltsuk, Navajo, Skagit, Skokomish, and Sooke nations; and numerous volunteers.

Beginning of healing

In separate interviews, Fredy, Olsen and Williams said the August 25 event is an important step toward healing.

The First People left behind at least 2,000 years of evidence of their life at Pe'pi'ow'elh; according to National Park Service records, British Sgt. William Joy described in 1859 a shell midden 10 feet high, 35 to 40 feet wide and 120 yards long. One of the earliest photographs from the British occupation period dates to about 1859 and shows troops planting a vegetable garden near the former site of the longhouse. An 1868 photo shows Coast Salish canoes on the beach, backdropped by a blockhouse and other camp buildings, several of which stand today.


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