Coast Salish History

This website acknowledges that the lands and places documented on the website are the ancestral home of the Coast Salish people.

The Coast Salish Peoples of King County.  A brief outline by Crisca Bierwert

According to their own traditions, the Coast Salish people have lived on their land and waters from time immemorial.  They are the indigenous peoples of the Salish Sea,[1] and the watersheds leading to the Sea, including the lower Fraser River.  They have long histories of interrelationships, with shared cultural ideas and practices.  Yet communities differ as well.  Coast Salish languages and some cultural practices have long varied through the region, and – since the beginning of colonization – local groups have evolved culturally, economically, and politically in their own ways.

Tribes and First Nations

Today the Coast Salish are a small minority on their homelands, yet collectively they are a resilient cultural and political force.  Their leaders emphasize the importance of cultural and political sovereignty, which includes the historical sovereignty of Native American peoples before colonization, and the ongoing right to self-determination. Canadian groups call themselves “First Nations” rather than “tribes” to reflect this.  The federal government of the United States recognizes 24 Coast Salish tribes in Washington State, and the Canadian federal government recognizes 45 Coast Salish First Nations in British Columbia.[2][3]  In King County, the recognized tribes include the Muckleshoot and Snoqualmie[4].  The Suquamish also have treaty rights in King County, due to their historic use of the land and waterways.  In addition, the Duwamish Tribe, whose name means “People of the Inside” in the native language, is also seeking federal recognition as independent tribe.[5]  Federal recognition is important in economic and political terms, affecting members’ land and resources rights, and access to health care (in the U.S.).  It also means that the tribe or First Nation may have federal income or economic opportunities that derive from their historic sovereignty and land holdings.

Because people throughout the Coast Salish region have long been linked through intermarriage, individuals often have ancestry that includes many groups, not just one tribe.  This is a fact that was not recognized when treaties were made, as the treaties pinned individuals to reservations as if each person had only one tribal identity and was not related to the other tribes.[6]


The term “Coast Salish” refers to a group of related indigenous languages that were, and are, spoken by people in this region.  Each language has dialect variations with distinct names. In King County, the indigenous languages are of the Southern Lushootseed dialect, also called xʷəlšucid (Whulshootseed).[7]

Other Native Americans in King County

It is also important to recognize that, today, King County is home to numerous Native Americans whose tribal affiliations come from outside the Coast Salish region.  Many come from other areas of Washington State, British Columbia, and Alaska; still others come from farther. Thus, the cultures of Native American people in King County are quite diverse.

A Brief Coast Salish History

The most important fact about Coast Salish history is that it is ongoing.  Coast Salish people today participate in professions of all kinds.  The U.S. Census documents that Native Americans in the U.S. are employed in the mainstream economy, in management, education, service, sales and office work, resources and construction, production and transportation.[8]  In addition to this employment, the people of the present time are connected to the past through their ancestors and their territory; and Native communities work to maintain those connections into the future.  The connections that Coast Salish people have to their land is beautifully summarized in the following statement by the Quinault Indian Nation:

“We are among the small number of Americans who can walk the same beaches, paddle the same waters, and hunt the same lands our ancestors did centuries ago.”



Ancient lifeways

Coast Salish people originated here, where they live today, according to the oral histories of all the tribes.   The earliest artifacts in Coast Salish territory are dated to about 14,000 years ago. Archeological evidence of villages in King County dates to about 6,000 years ago.[9]

Details of the long history of the Coast Salish people, from the time before written accounts, are scant today.  However, what is clear is that Coast Salish people had webs of interconnections throughout their region, exchanging materials and ideas especially through the most personal of connections, kinship.  The peoples had trading relations with others up and down the watersheds they lived on, up and down the coast, and with peoples inland, that is far upriver and also across the mountains.

The Coast Salish harvested food and materials from the sea, estuaries, and rivers, and from all the land from coast to mountaintop.  The cedar tree gave them great house posts, planks, and shingles.  In historic times, the people lived in extended families of multiple generations, in longhouses that were 25-60 feet wide and up to hundreds of feet in length.[10]  The people also carved canoes from cedar logs, canoes that could hold anywhere from a few to a dozen paddlers or more.  In addition, the people discovered that the inner bark was pliable enough to pound and weave into clothing.  Weavers also used the wool of mountain goats and wooly dogs to make blankets.  Basket makers used the roots of the cedar and of spruce trees for weaving, along with grasses and other materials; and they twined mats from dried cattails.  Abundant salmon runs gave the people food for most seasons, and they hunted and trapped land animals as well.   The shoreline gave equally abundant shellfish.  “When the tide is out, the table is set,” is still a widely-used expression.  Their technologies promoted sustainable harvesting, and their legends and histories both taught the importance of sharing.

Nonetheless, there were conflicts, especially with Native peoples of the north.  Raids on villages apparently antedate the appearance of the colonizers from Europe and Russia.  These includes raids especially to capture people who were made slaves.  What slavery required is not particularly clear, but it certainly meant that one’s work was for others’ benefit; that one was deprived of the kinship connections that gave to resources and social standing in the Coast Salish world, and that thus, one would not marry except to another person of slave status.

Early contact:  Diseases

Coast Salish people in the region contacted Europeans starting with the Spanish explorer, Juan de Fuca, in 1592.   Other explorers and traders followed, and the amount of interaction varied.  One impact of this early contact was devasting to the local people however.  That was the introduction of smallpox, a disease that Europeans knew but had been unknown on the Northwest Coast.  Without any immunity built up, the Coast Salish lost many people.  Scholars estimate the Native American population of Western Washington decreased from 37,000 to 26,000 in the 1700s.  The combined impact of smallpox measles, influenza, and other diseases had reduced the Native population to 9,000 by 1850. [11]  That is a reduction in population of 75%.

There had been a partial resurgence of the population by the time Coast Salish people began trading in earnest with the European and American tall ships that came in the 1800s.[12]

Settlement:  Economic changes and conflict

Settlement of Coast Salish lands in King County began in the vicinity of the present-day city of Seattle in 1851-52.   The local Native people provided fish for settlers’ use and for a fishing industry that developed.  Coast Salish men also worked in the lumber mills, fish packing operations, and home-building providing labor that was essential for the young town to grow.  Coast Salish women provided laundering and other services.  Some of the settlers married Native women, and established mixed-race families.  This cultural exchange went on simultaneous with Coast Salish peoples’ living in their older villages and lifeways for the most part.

But there were also conflicts, as the Native people in the region saw the settlers taking riverside lands and trying to prevent Coast Salish access to traditional land and water resources, including greens, berries, roots, small animals, and salmon.  This tension, and inter-personal conflicts led to inter-racial violence, and people were killed on both sides, sometimes through provocation and sometimes in retaliation.

Armed conflict, reservations created, and resistance

After organizing a colonial militia to combat Native resistance, the colonizing Governor Stevens wrote treaties in 1854 and 1855, requiring Coast Salish groups to cede their traditional lands and to be assigned to reservations in Western Washington.  The goal was not only to secure lands for settlers but also to provide some greater separation between settler and indigenous societies.  For the most part the reservations were oceanside reservations with limited access to the riverine watersheds, forests and prairies that had been important part of the traditional transportation and resource network of the people.   Furthermore, as mentioned above, it was the United States government’s official policy to identify Native American people with one specific tribe while, in actuality, many people could trace their ancestry to various groups, and marriages from people in different watersheds had been a historic way to build alliances and maximize the resources that a family could draw on.

Some Coast Salish groups resisted moving to reservations.  The Nisqually leaders Leschi and Quiemuth, Muckleshoot leader Kitsap, and Yakama tribal leaders, among others, joined together to launch military assaults.  Other Coast Salish – including leaders Seattle and Patkanim – were either allies of the settlers or worked to mitigate violence.  However, the settlers used their numbers and their weaponry and succeeded putting down active rebellions.  The Nisqually leaders Leschi and his brother Quiemuth were both killed.  Quiemuth was shot in the governor’s office, after peacefully surrendering himself to the custody of the American; Leschi was then accused and convicted of murder and was hanged.[13]

In Seattle, in 1865, a city ordinance banned Native Americans (“Indians”) from residing in the town.  Also in 1866, citizens petitioned to reject creating a reservation specifically for the Duwamish people, on whose historic land their lived.  Sixteen Duwamish families still lived on the Black and Duwamish rivershed south of Seattle, although the federal government said that Duwamish were to move to the Tulalip Reservation, some 40 miles north to join members of the Snohomish and Skykomish tribes.  Some Duwamish refused to move.  Some went to Suquamish but there was not enough food, so they came back to the Duwamish to fish and hunt.  Duwamish descendants continue to seek recognition as a tribe in their own right.[14]

Federal government administration of the reservations had the explicit aim of ending traditional Native American lifeways.  Colonial policies intended the Native people to become farmers, even though the reservation lands were often ill-suited to farming.  Because of their displacement from traditional lands, Coast Salish people suffered from lack of food.  They did not simply suffer, however; they also began to fight for resources rights in the courts.  The first legal case to protect fishing rights came in 1887; others followed.

Residential schools: A Strategy of “enculturation”

Starting in the 1880s, Coast Salish children were taken from their families and put into boarding schools.  These schools were meant to keep the children from learning about traditional lifeways – including economic productivity, language, and oral traditions – and to learn skills of other rural Americans.  Many children acknowledged later that this “skill-building” was actually used to sustain the schools.  For example, their labor chopped the wood, managed the fields, made the food, and ran the laundry.  Some have fond memories of friendships forged during this time, but the overwhelming legacy of that period was a terrible damage to familial relations.  The children saw their parents only infrequently, and briefly, and thus they grew up without parents, and without parenting.  They lost their traditional languages, as they were beaten if they tried to speak anything but English.  And many experienced sexual abuse.  This history challenges the mental health of Native American people all across North America today, and the peoples are finding ways to heal from it.

20th Century Citizenship:  More assimilation policies on one hand; cultural affirmations on the other

During the twentieth century, Coast Salish people had leaders who were part of national movements that continued to petition, lobby, and protest for their rights across the country and locally.  Coast Salish men also fought in World War I in high numbers, proportionate to the population.  In 1924, Native Americans were granted citizenship (although many had gained citizenship by serving in the military, for example.)  Citizenship was granted for many reasons, and opinions differ on the motives of Congress.  For example, some Native leaders wanted the voting and other political rights conferred by citizenship; other Native leaders saw this change as a way to undermine the sovereignty and community of the tribes.  The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act pressed tribal governments to create constitutions, as part of a new federal push toward cultural assimilation, that is, urging Native Americans to adopt and live by the same kinds of political institutions and bureaucracies as did other Americans.

Native cultural activities continued to be repressed.  Federal Indian agents had banned traditional religious activities from the 1880s, although Coast Salish religious leaders managed to keep some ceremonial practices going, mostly hidden from public sight, and involving very small numbers of people.  However, at the Tulalip reservation 1911, leaders also organized a large public gathering, called “Treaty Day,” where they danced and sang in traditional ways and invited the Indian agent to attend.  Artists’ traditional images and regalia during this time were limited, with only a few people maintaining the skills of carving and weaving.  Many of the artists on this website learned from elders who did carry on such skills.

One usual Coast Salish artist created public art in the early 20th Century.  Starting in the 1912, the Tulalip leader William Shelton worked to make Native culture visible.  Through the next two decades, he carved what he called “Story Poles,” in the form of totem poles, for public parks.  They showed the key figures in his family’s traditional stories.  These poles were not “traditional” as they are on the Northern Northwest Coast, but they became part of how Coast Salish people could affirm themselves and “speak” to outsiders of their continued presence.[15]  This was the kind of cultural affirmation that is seen in Coast Salish public art today.  Shelton and others followed up, pushing in the 1920s and 1930s for recognition of treaty rights, that would not come for decades more.

By the 1950s, a U.S. push toward Termination policies – explicitly meant to eliminate reservations and Native American lifeways – prompted renewed Native resistance. Then, in the 1960s Coast Salish activism received national attention.  During that time, activism focused on fishing rights.  “Fish-in” demonstrations at Franks’ Landing, on the Puyallup Reservation, drew national attention.  There were also fish-ins headed by Muckleshoots, on the tidal Duwamish waterway.

On the reservations, activism also emphasized cultural practices, as elders sought to revive older traditions that reinforced the importance of resources.  In 1970, a group of elders from Tulalip and Swinomish decided to reconstruct the First Salmon Ceremony, first to remember what their grandparents had done and then to organize a version of the days-long ceremony that could be done in a single day.[16]  After they succeeded in holding the Ceremony at Tulalip, the Ceremony began to be brought back on the other reservation communities.

Native fishing rights were finally granted through a 1974 court decision by U.S. District Court Justice George Boldt, upholding treating rights for Native Americans in the region.  As a result of this decision, tribal fishermen and fisherwomen began to benefit financially.

Urban Native Americans

Urban Native Americans in Seattle have for many decades organized to provide many social services to urban Native people, and to provide a strong cultural contribution to political awareness.  One example was a group of Native women who organized in 1958 to provide services especially for poor or homeless Native people in Seattle.  The organization became the American Indian Women’s Service League, a leader in promoting responsible policies for the homeless.  Another example is a group that became known as the United Indians of All Tribes.  The public start was the occupation of Fort Lawton in 1970, a military base on the western edge of Seattle. That action that led to the 1976 creation of Daybreak Star, a cultural center for urban Indians.   A third example is the Chief Seattle Club, operated continuously since 1970, whose programs include talking circles, art work projects, and an art gallery, along with providing food and medical attention to homeless urban Native people.

New economic enterprises

In 1988, federal law permitted casinos on reservation land, and this began a future of even greater economic development for recognized tribes.  King County recognized tribes include the Muckleshoot, who opened their first casino in 1995; and the Snoqualmie, who opened their first in 2008. [17]  (The Snoqualmie were recognized as an independent tribe in 1999, having lost recognition in 1953 because they had no reservation lands.  Some of their people had moved to the more northern Tulalip Tribes after treaty signing, but others had remained where they lived, even though that was not reservation land.)  These casinos have brought jobs to tribal members and also to those in the surrounding communities.

In Canada, the 1990s was a decade in which treaty processes were established for the land claims of First Nations peoples there.  (Only a tiny fraction of British Columbia had treaties made; the remaining land was still aboriginal land by law.)  It was also a decade in which the commercial fishing rights of First Nations people were upheld in the courts.  Coast Salish people there have also been battling, through the subsequent decades, for protection of resource rights including protection of forests as well as marine and river life.  They have fought, as well, for compensation because of the abuses experienced at the boarding schools, and they have launched an international effort to address concern over missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.

In the U.S., tribes have also initiated legal action to protect salmon and shellfish resources, and the rights of their members to harvest these traditional resources.  For one example, the Muckleshoot and Suquamish have affirmed that they have treaty rights on the urban grounds and waters of the city of Seattle.  Another example is the sustained effort of the Lower Elwha S’Klallam, with environmental allies, leading to the demolishing of the Elhwa Dam in 2014, and restoration of the river. Another example is the Lummis’ challenge to a Cherry Point Coal Terminal in Bellingham that halted that project.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined that the planned Terminal posed a significant risk to salmon, which are treaty right of the Lummis.

In the city of Seattle, the unrecognized Duwamish continue to seek recognition, and have established a strong presence with the development of a cultural center, the Duwamish Longhouse, across from several ancient village sites.  They also provide leadership at numerous cultural and political events in the City, such as gatherings on Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Universities in Seattle also provide centers for Native American cultural, economic, and political action.  The wəɬəbʔaltxʷ (Intellectual House) and the American Indian Studies Department are two major centers at the University of Washington-Seattle.  The Indigenous Peoples Institute at Seattle University is another.

Meanwhile, on surrounding reservations, tribes have channeled profits from casinos into elder services, health services, education, and cultural programs.  Profits are also used for diverse economic development projects, such as shopping malls, hotels, concert venues, cultural centers, and museums throughout the Coast Salish territory.


Major books to consult for more information:

Coll Thrush.  2017.  Native Seattle:  Histories from the Crossing-Over Place.  Second Edition.  Seattle:  University of Washington Press.

Alexandra Harmon. 2000.  Indians in the Making:  Ethnic Relations and Indian Identities around Puget Sound.  Berkeley:  University of California Press.

David Buerge.  2017.  Chief Seattle and the Town that Took His Name:  The Change of Worlds for the Native Peoples and the Settlers on Puget Sound. Seattle: Sasquatch Books.

Michael Schein.  2011.  Bones Beneath Our Feet:  A Historical Novel of Puget Sound.  Seattle:  Bennett & Hastings.

Harriet Shelton Dover.  2013.  Tulalip, From My Heart:  An Autobiographical Account of a Reservation Community.  Seattle:  University of Washington Press.

Wayne Suttles.  1987.  Coast Salish Essays.  Seattle:  University of Washington Press.

Barbara Brotherton, ed. 2008.  S’abadeb:  The Gifts.  Pacific Coast Salish Art and Artists.  Seattle:  University of Washington Press.

Rebecca Blanchard and Nancy Davenport, eds.  2005.  Contemporary Coast Salish Art.  Seattle:  Stonington Gallery and University of Washington Press.

Online materials for curriculum support:

Materials from the Washington State Office of Public Instruction, Office of Native Education curriculum, Since Time Immemorial:  Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State.


Lesson plans on a wide variety of topics related to the Coast Salish people, compiled by the Whatcom County Library System.

Seattle Art Museum material digested for teachers as a Resource Library:

See also some suggestions in the “Curriculum Aids” section of this website.

Other online resources:

Jennifer Ott.  Sdzidzilalitch (Little Crossing-Over Place).  November 10, 2014.

Coll Thrush.  The Lushootseed People of Puget Sound Country.  n.d.  Seattle:  University of Washington Library online resource with bibliography

Robin Wright.  Coast Salish peoples & languages.  January 16, 2014.

Burke Museum. n.d.


[1] See .  And for a map of Coast Salish land areas, see

[2] The following website has a very clear initial statement of legal “sovereignty.”  It then goes on to talk about North Dakota tribes (because it was created there).

[3] The number is approximate because some groups are seeking federal recognition.

[4] The Puyallup Tribe has a small bit of the reservation in King County, but is almost entirely in Pierce County.

[5] See  Some of their members are enrolled in other tribes.  Other Washington tribes seeking federal recognition are outside of King County.

[6] Although historically, many Coast Salish people were descended from multiple tribes, the federal recognition process has required that a Native American can be a member of only one single recognized tribe.  In addition, specific tribes have specific enrollment requirements.  One kind of requirement is how many of their ancestors were members of that particular tribe; another may be whether the person lives on the reservation.

[7] The xʷəlšucid (Whulshootseed) dialects include Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Puyallup, Snoqualmie, and Suquamish.  Above present-day Shoreline begins the land of Northern Lushootseed, or dxʷləšucid, which is a closely related dialect. Also related is the Skagit Lushootseed dialect, of the people of the Skagit River watershed; the Twana language, of the Skokomish people on the west side of Puget Sound; and several languages of Straits Salish, including the languages of the S’Klallam peoples and the Lummis at the northern end of Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula.  Canadian Coast Salish peoples also have several related languages.  (The focus of this site is currently King County, which is why this list is not more detailed at the present time.)

[8][8] See .

[9] Many historians and anthropologists state that Native Americans migrated to North America across the Bering Sea, when the sea level was low enough for the passage to be made entirely on land,

[10] See and Suttles, Coast Salish Essays,  p. 114 (in bibliography).

[11] Robert T. Boyd, George M. Guilmet, David L. Whited, Nile Thompson, “The Legacy of Introduced Disease: The Southern Coast Salish” American Indian and Culture and Research Journal Vol. 15, No. 4 (1991), p. 7-8, 11. From


[13] See Alexandra Harmon.  1998.  Indians in the Making:  Ethnic Relations and Indian Identities around Puget Sound.  Berkeley:  University of California Press.  Chapter 3, pp. 74-97.

[14] See Coll Thrush.  2017.   Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place.  Seattle: University of Washington Press.  pp. 40-56.

[15] House posts, inside a house, were traditionally carved with significant images and designs, but these did not stand outside and face outward the way totem poles do. For a discussion of Coast Salish totem poles, and other historical Salish art, see the Burke Museum’s article by Robin Wright:

[16] In Harriett Shelton Dover, Tulalip From My Heart, op cit., pp. 256-7.

[17] Duwamish people of the Seattle area are still seeking recognition as an independent tribe, as noted above in footnote 5.  The Puyallup Tribe, with a bit of their reservation in King County, also has a casino.