Washington State is Indian country. The powerful spirit of our native people pulses, like an ancient chant, through the state’s culture, past and present. The whispers of our ancestors can be heard along every stream and forested trail, and in every wave that rolls onto the endless beaches of Washington’s Pacific Coast. From the snowy peaks of our towering mountains and the rivers that once teamed with salmon, to the eastern Washington deserts and rolling grasses of the Palouse hills – wherever nature and the human spirit melt into one, these are the places that the Indian peoples have called “home”.
To get a sense of this, you need only look at a map of Washington. Over 75 rivers, thirteen counties, and hundreds of cities and towns all bear the melodic names of ancient Indian tongues – Seattle, Tacoma, Yakima, and Spokane among them. Our people guided Lewis and Clark to the Pacific and pointed them safely back to the east. Indian trails became the state’s earliest roads. Salmon, delicately grilled and smoked in alder, has become a hallmark of our famous regional cuisine.
For the outsider, learning about Indian culture is as uncomplicated as visiting one of our tribes. Washington’s Indian population divides easily into three parts: the Coastal tribes, the tribes of the inland waters, and the Inland and Columbia River Plateau tribes.
One of the richest repositories of Coastal Indian life is in Neah Bay, home to the Makah Indian Tribe in the far Northwest corner of the state. Visit during Makah Days in late August and you’ll see traditional dancing, canoe races, and the mesmerizing bone game being played as the smoky scent of open fires and roasting salmon wafts through the cool air. In the museum at the Makah Cultural and Research Center you can look at artifacts excavated from Ozette, a village fifteen miles to the south that was partially buried in a mud slide about 500 years ago. Archaeological evidence of the Makah’s reaches back 4.000 years.
The museum also has full-size replicas of whaling and sealing canoes and a long house. In the gift shop, you can buy traditional arts like cedar masks and bent wood boxes made by tribal members. Then head out to Cape Flattery. Keep your children close as you hike the ¾ mile to the top of a cliff that offers a spectacular ocean view from the most northwesterly point in the contiguous United States.
Down the coast, tucked into Olympic National Park, Quileute Tribe centers its culture in the enchanting 19th century fishing village of La Push, at the mouth of the Quileute River. Mid-March through mid-June, whale watching is spectacular here. Enormous gray whales are often seen as close as 50 feet off shore. Or you can watch the sea lions frolicking in the pounding surf. The Quileute beaches are some of the most beautiful in the world, covered with perfectly round, flat Quileute skipping stones. And the Quillayute Needles, towering rock formations called sea stacks, rise spectacularly up from the saltwater from your beachfront rental cabin.
Across the Cascades in the dry, sunny and fertile Yakima Valley, the Yakama Indian Nation Cultural Heritage Center offers an equally incisive look into the world of the Inland tribes. Along with tools, buckskin garments, and beadwork, you can see a sweat lodge as well as a winter lodge. The gift shop is filled with the work of local craftsmen; the restaurant serves fry bread and lukmeel. If you decide to spend the night, groups as large as ten can rent an authentic teepee at the campground.
Further east, under the sunny blue skies and rocky outcroppings of Roosevelt Lake, the Colville Confederated Tribes and the Spokane Tribe both have houseboat rental businesses. Their huge, fully-equipped houseboats can hold up to 20 people, lumbering merrily through the placid waters behind Grand Coulee Dam. From here, you can explore camping and hunting grounds that are unchanged since the days of Kennewick Man, whose 9.300 year old remains found along the lower Columbia River, tell us that he was a grandfather and warrior whose tribal family thrived here.
And if you have a car full of kids, venture closer to the state’s eastern border. Off Highway 211, cross the Pend Oreille River at the hamlet of Usk, and take the first road north into the homelands of the Kalispell Tribe. About 2.5 miles up you’ll be able to stop and watch the tribe’s buffalo herd grazing in the lush green grass.
In Seattle’s Discovery Park, the Daybreak Star Cultural Center, affiliated with the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, is a nucleus of urban Indian life. Each year, at SeaFair time in July, the center hosts a huge Indian Days Pow Wow. The art gallery exhibits contemporary Indian art, some of which is sold in the gift shop. The center is open daily and the vast park is filled with trails, native vegetation, and spectacular views of the Puget Sound shoreline and the Olympic Mountains.
The tribal entrepreneurial spirit is as alive and well today, just as when Indians first began trading with European explorers over two hundred years ago. Although tribal casinos are ostensibly built for gambling, they offer a host of amenities that will please any savvy traveler. The resorts are in scenic settings, rooms and dinning room meals are generous and reasonably priced, the gift shops offer an assortment of high quality items, also at good prices, and there is often good, rousing entertainment.
It’s worth a trip to the Seven Cedar Casino operated by the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, just to see the magnificent totem poles that grace the entry of the main building. At the Quinault Indian Nation’s Quinault Beach Resort, access to the spectacular beach and the surrounding native forest make for an excellent Northwest weekend, especially in winter when most tourist are hibernating. The Tulalip Casino, operated by the Tulalip Tribes, fairly boasts “big portions and fine dining at a good price”. You’ll get the point if you order prime rib in their Prince of Wales Restaurant. And at the glittering Muckleshoot Casino, the largest in the state and owned by the Muckleshoot Tribe, the Las Vegas style shows pack in the crowds, and folks from all over the Puget Sound metropolitan area come to dance to the live music.
The twenty nine tribes of Washington give our state a breadth of adventures, experiences, and insights into cultures that are as colorful and complex as a dance mask or a beaded saddle bag, and as impossible to forget as the eternal rhythm and earthy beauty of tribal music. Across the state, the Indian dialects and language vary and are rarely used in the presence of outsiders. No matter, the message glowing from the strong and quiet faces of Washington’s Indian peoples is, and always has been, the same; Welcome.