STEILACOOM — Imagine towering bluffs – festooned in delicate pink flowers – rising above blue water as native peoples paddle dugout canoes along the stony shore below. Prairie and woodland meet in this magical place, where Indians competed with eagles for salmon in the shallow creek that flowed into the deep sound.
For hundreds of years before Europeans arrived, the Salish tribal bands that lived and hunted here called this area CH’tilQWubSH – Salish-Whulshootseed dialect for “place of the pink flower.”
It’s known today by an anglicized version of its original Indian name – Steilacoom.
And although settlers turned Steilacoom into Washington’s first town in 1854, native history extends back far beyond to a time of mists and myths, kept alive by remnants of the Steilacoom Tribe – numbering in the hundreds – still scattered through the region.
Tribal Chair, master storyteller and cultural anthropologist Danny K. Marshall traces his peoples’ past, present and future in a free, public talk – “A Special Place in Time: Steilacoom Now…and Then” – on Thursday, May 5 at 7 p.m. in the Steilacoom Town Hall, 1717 Lafayette St.
More than idyllic memories and fascinating folk tales, Marshall says Steilacoom’s native past is also marked by broken treaties and shattered dreams; by conflict and struggles to survive. It’s the account of a culture threatened with extinction if those who know the full story, forget.
“Members of the tribe are united by a common bond: the quest to hold onto our Steilacoom Indian heritage, to preserve and protect our identity as a distinct and viable Indian tribe, and to regain rights and privileges guaranteed by the Medicine Creek Treaty (of 1854),” Marshall explains. “Unlike most other treaty-signing tribes, we have had to maintain our identity without the benefit of a land base and federal resources.”
The tribe’s current challenge is to preserve its rapidly crumbling cultural center-museum housed in a century-old historic building in Steilacoom’s downtown.
“We have survived by means of a mixture of traditional activities and our ability to use traditional skills outside of our own culture. Although we did not receive a reservation, we have survived to the present day by maintaining our social and political organization,” he notes, adding that his presentation places the tribe in both an historic and current context.
“One of the things I will be illustrating is an understanding of the Indian/Government relationship during the period of time that was formative to the creation of the Town of Steilacoom,” he continues. “I find it helps the audience to make an emotional connection to the time period when they can reflect on what was happening across the nation. For many people it makes no sense what happened here with the treaty and reservations and the Steilacoom Tribe, unless they know the goals and attitudes which guided the process. My aim is to provide some historical knowledge, but also help people understand how and why we got to where we are today.”
Doors open at 6:30 p.m. to showcase a display of Indian crafts and artifacts.
Marshall’s presentation is co-sponsored by the Town of Steilacoom and Steilacoom’s Historic Preservation and Review Board. While his talk is free and open to the public, Marshall welcomes donations for the ongoing capital campaign to restore the Tribal Cultural Center.