‘First on the Waterway’ Foss Waterway Seaport exhibit tells story of Puyallup Tribe’s connection to local waters

Chairman Bill Sterud called the opening a “momentous moment.”. Photo by Bill Bungard

Feb. 15 witnessed the unveiling of “First on the Waterway,” a brand-new exhibit at the Foss Waterway Seaport. The exhibit tells the story of Tacoma’s waterways from the point of view of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians and other Salish-speaking groups: the first inhabitants of this region. Thousands of generations of regional rootedness gave the area’s Native population a deep familiarity with Commencement Bay, the Puyallup River, the Tacoma Narrows and the complex network of passages, islands and inlets of the South Sound, also known as the Salish Sea. Nourished by the plants, animals, fish and marine life of the local land and water, the first inhabitants and their generations of descendants are the offspring of this specific area, made of its substance, generated by the materials resident to this part of the world. Ironically, the story of Tacoma often begins with European explorers and overlooks or glosses over the story of the people that have lived in the region for millennia.

At the Feb. 15 opening of the exhibit, Seaport Executive Director Wesley A. Wenhardt noted that telling the story of the first people of the area is very much part of the Foss Waterway Seaport’s mission, which is to preserve Puget Sound’s maritime heritage, educate the public about it and serve as an events center to celebrate that heritage.

The exhibit, centrally located in the newly heated building, consists of a cluster of well-illustrated informational panels, models and artifacts. The information on the panels is liberally sprinkled with examples of the native Lushootseed language. A helpful pronunciation guide put out by the Language Department of the Puyallup Tribe is available for anyone that wants to learn some Lushootseed words. The panels tell the story of the Puyallup people’s connection to the local waters in the past, present and future. The individual parts of the exhibit are divided into categories like “Traditions of Fishing and Gathering,” “Gifts from the Water” and “Tides and Currents.” There are chapters on more recent history of the Tribe, such as the “Fishing Wars” of the late 1960s/early 1970s in which the Tribe fought to assert fishing rights accorded by treaty. There is also a chapter on the “Canoe Journey,” an annual event in which members of numerous regional tribes paddle their canoes on a grand circuit through the Salish Sea each summer. There is a large, light-up map that shows the locations of the numerous Native settlements of the region. Models and artifacts exhibit the sophistication of some of the building, maritime technology and navigational skills of the Native inhabitants. Their plank built houses were marvels of engineering, and their canoes are both seaworthy vessels and beautiful, spiritual things, often carved with an animal head in the bow.

At the unveiling of the exhibit, a number of Puyallup Tribal leaders were on hand. Puyallup Tribal Council Chairman Bill Sterud called the opening of the exhibit a “momentous moment,” in which the Puyallup Tribe can tell its story in its own way. Sterud emphasized that the Tribe is an important part of the fabric of the region’s community and its history needs to be known and appreciated by the community as a whole. “We’re all in this together,” he said, “We’re moving in a good direction for fish, air water and people. We’ve got to keep our water clean, our fish vital and our air breathable. This is a good year to share the story. Welcome to the Puyallup Nation!”

Puyallup Tribal Culture Director Connie McCloud noted that the Seaport building is not far from some of the old villages of bygone years and she told of how the Tacoma area was traditionally a land of abundance, where people could fish and hunt literally from their front porches.

Councilman Jim Rideout noted that visitors new to the area would learn of the Puyallups’ true history. Photo by Bill Bungard.

Puyallup Tribal Councilman Jim Rideout noted the importance of “First on the Waterway” as a means for newcomers to the region to hear the story and to know the history of the people that have been here all along. “People who come from elsewhere can come here and learn about the waterway,” he said.

The Puyallup Tribe is generationally bound to this place more deeply than any other group. So much a part of this place are they, that they have perhaps the greatest stake in ensuring that the waters, and air and land that generated their ancestors continues to be a source of vitality for all of us and for those that come after us. Their role as the protectors of this place is legitimized by generations of ancestors that are part of the very ground on which we walk.

In addition to the speeches of dignitaries, there was a powerful performance by the Puyallup Canoe Family singing and drumming group. Their voices and their drumming soared to the high rafters of the building as dancers recreated the motions of canoe paddlers on a journey. Also on hand were some Native carvers, working on traditional canoe paddles.

“First on the Waterway” provides a glimpse into the ancient past of this place, in which the people here lived in a close relationship with the local plants, animals and marine life. Their buildings were strong and beautiful and their canoes transformed Puget Sound and the inland rivers into a transportation and communication network that allowed much interaction among the many communities of the maritime Pacific Northwest.

Drummers and dancers blessed everyone with sacred songs. Photo by Bill Bungard.

“First on the Waterway” was curated by Chris Fiala Erlich, who worked in close proximity with the Puyallup Tribe’s Historic Preservation Office. The exhibit was made possible by contributions from the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, City of Tacoma, Tote Maritime Keltech and Port of Tacoma. Seaport Director Wenhardt noted that it is a hopeful sign that these organizations, which are not always in agreement, could come together to make this exhibit possible.

The Seaport plans to host monthly events, like canoe paddling, carving, weaving and dance, that coincide with the exhibit. It is also hoped that the Seaport can play a part in this summer’s “Paddle to Puyallup” Canoe Journey, when a flotilla of more than 100 canoes from numerous tribes will come into Puyallup Tribal territorial waters. Organizers of the exhibit would like schools and educational programs to take advantage of the exhibit and bring their students to view it. A hard and fast date for the end of the exhibit has not yet been determined, but it will certainly be on view through July.

The Foss Waterway Seaport is located at 705 Dock St. If you have not been there lately or have never been, a visit is highly recommended. “First on the Waterway” is just one of the many exhibits that the maritime-themed museum has to show. There are many beautiful old boats, canoes, vintage boat motors, models ships, paintings, a whale skeleton and much to see and do. The building itself is a survivor of a mile-long row of wheat warehouses that once lined the Thea Foss Waterway. It is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

For more on the “First on the Waterway” exhibit and the Foss Waterway Seaport, visit fosswaterwayseaport.org or call (253) 272-2750.