On Friday evening, June 6, the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Museum will open a new exhibit illustrating the culture of Vashon’s native people, the sxwobabc*, whose permanent villages thrived for thousands of years along the Quartermaster Harbor shoreline. “Vashon Island’s Native People: Navigating Seas of Change,” will summarize some of the many events that combined to destabilize their culture in the mid-19th century. What historians and anthropologists know about their history is fragmentary, since diseases and rapid white settlement forced them onto reservations in just one generation. Fortunately, Lucy Slagham Gerand, who was born around 1843 in a longhouse on Vashon, ensured that a few details of the sxwobabc presence on Vashon would survive.
As a child Lucy accompanied her parents to Medicine Creek in December, 1854, when Governor Isaac Stevens persuaded the tribes of the South Sound to sign a treaty giving away most of their land. For the next 75 years she, like other Coast Salish people, struggled with disease and dislocation as they moved to reservations and were urged to learn farming. She and her husband John Slagham found ways to adapt, learning new skills like gardening and knitting and continuing traditional ones such as fishing and clamming. They moved back to Vashon, and Lucy is remembered vividly by early pioneers. It is because Lucy shared many sxwobabc names for places on Vashon with an anthropologist in 1918 that we have inherited valuable details of their residence on Vashon Island. Nine years later she described the villages of her childhood to a U.S. Court of Claims, with further information about daily life and traditions from the deep-rooted culture of the sxwobabc.
Today the sxwobabc people are part of the Puyallup Tribe. Their descendants continue to come to Vashon and some live here. The Puyallup Tribe has been very successful economically in modern times, owning a port, two casinos, a hotel, and the largest Indian school in the country, Chief Leschi.
A grant from 4Culture has enabled the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Museum to commission an original piece of art by Puyallup artist Shaun Peterson to highlight the sxwobabc exhibit. Peterson, whose heritage is Puyallup and Tulalip, has won awards and earned a reputation as an outstanding spokesman on south Coast Salish design. His sculpture will be displayed for the first time during the First Friday Art Tour, 5-9 pm, June 6.
The Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association thanks the sponsors who have made this exhibit possible, including 4Culture, Puget Sound Energy, DIG, Beth de Groen, Rick’s Diagnostic & Repair Service, The Hardware Store, John L. Scott Real Estate, and the Northwest School of Animal Massage. The exhibit will close March 15, 2015. For more information, go to
*The name “sxwobabc” means “swiftwater people,” perhaps referring to their extensive use of the waters between Vashon, Tacoma, and Gig Harbor where their close relatives lived.