Northwest Indian canoes return to site of Point Elliott Treaty on July 26, 2007.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 8/26/2007
  • Essay 8269

On July 26, 2007, about 40 tribal canoes from Puget Sound, the Washington coast, and Vancouver Island land at Lighthouse Park in Mukilteo south of Everett as part of the 2007 Intertribal Canoe Journey. The landing and the traditional celebration that follows are the largest intertribal gathering at the site, also known as Point Elliott, since January 22, 1855, when 82 leaders of Puget Sound tribes signed the Treaty of Point Elliott, giving up almost all their land in return for small reservations and perpetual fishing and hunting rights. The tribal canoe journey, an annual event since the 1989 "Paddle to Seattle," will end four days later near Bellingham, where the Lummi Nation will host a week-long potlatch ceremony.

Muckl-te-oh Meeting Ground

Mukilteo or Muckl-te-oh, said to mean "good camping ground," was the original name for the the low headland in what is now southwest Snohomish County. U.S. Navy Lt. Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) named it Point Elliott during his 1841 survey of Puget Sound, but the modern town, the lighthouse built in 1905, and the nearby ferry landing all retain the name Mukilteo. Inhabited for thousands of years, Muckl-te-oh was long an important meeting ground and trading place for tribal communities from throughout Puget Sound and farther afield.

On January 22, 1855, Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Ingalls Stevens (1818-1862) gathered the leaders of 22 Puget Sound tribes at the Muckl-te-oh meeting area to present one of a series of treaties ceding Indian lands to the United States. Chief Seattle (d. 1866) was among the 82 leaders who signed the Treaty of Point Elliott, relinquishing all the land between Puget Sound and the Cascade Mountains from south of Seattle to the Canadian border except for three small reservations. In return for the vast stretch of territory, which includes the modern cities of Seattle, Everett, and Bellingham, the Indians were promised small monetary payments. As in all the Stevens treaties, the tribes also retained the right to fish, hunt, and gather throughout their traditional territories.

Although the treaties did not succeed in preserving traditional cultures as the leaders who signed them had hoped, their descendants honored the treaties even as they fought for many years to exercise the rights guaranteed in them. In May 1933, the Lummi, Snoqualmie, Skykomish, Muckleshoot, Yakama, and other tribes held a major commemoration and re-enactment of the Treaty of Point Elliott, with descendants of many of the original signers re-enacting their roles. The event was held not at Point Elliott but at Juanita on Lake Washington, north of Kirkland in King County. Along with the re-enactment, a salmon feast, and traditional dances, the event featured two days of canoe races, including several featuring large, 11-paddle cedar "war canoes."

Reviving the Canoe Journey

By the 1930s, the long, elegant, carved-cedar canoes, which had been the primary means of transportation around Puget Sound for generations, including for the first few decades after white settlement, were already a rare sight. Over the next half-century they all but disappeared. Then as Washington tribes regained their treaty rights and began revitalizing their cultures in the late twentieth century, the Northwest canoes made a dramatic comeback.

In 1989, as part of Washington's centennial celebration, tribal leaders revived an age-old, but long-abandoned, practice in which canoes from around the region travel to a celebration hosted by one tribe. Some tribes carved their first canoe in nearly a century for the 1989 journey, dubbed the Paddle to Seattle because it ended at Seattle's Discovery Park. Following the success of the Paddle to Seattle, the canoe journey became an annual event, and for many tribal members, a "centerpiece of cultural life" (Pulkkinen).

The Intertribal Canoe Journey, with a different host tribe as the destination each year, grew steadily as enthusiastic participants returned to their communities describing the experience. In 2007, the Paddle to Lummi, hosted by the Lummi Nation located near Bellingham in Whatcom County, drew up to 80 canoes from tribes in Washington, British Columbia, and as far away as Oregon and Alaska. The individual canoes gradually collected into two large flotillas, one making its way south from eastern Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland, and the other gathering from the Washington coast, western Vancouver Island, and southern Puget Sound before making its way north to Lummi.

Paddling Back to Point Elliott

On July 26, 2007, the 40 or more canoes of the northbound group paddled to shore at Mukilteo Lighthouse Park to the sound of singing and drumming and the cheers of spectators. After the canoes had landed, tribal leaders and other officials spoke at a gathering commemorating the Treaty of Point Elliott signed on the spot 152 years earlier. Traditional dancing and singing continued well into the evening, and the canoe crews and their support teams spent the night in colorful nylon tents erected throughout the park.

The City of Mukilteo had invited the Indian canoes to Point Elliott, and the City and Washington State Ferries hosted the event. Mukilteo Mayor Joe Marine said "I think it means a great deal ... For the community, it really gives us a sense of history" (Orsini-Meinhard). Noting issues arising from recent archeological evidence of an Indian village at the site of a proposed new ferry terminal in Mukilteo, Tulalip tribal chairman Mel Sheldon said of the Mukilteo gathering, "We thought it might be a good way to learn more about each other" (Santos). The Tulalip leader stressed the need to work together, since neither Indians nor the surrounding society are going away. Sheldon highlighted the canoe journey's role in immersing young people in their cultures and ensuring they would not forget:

"It helps our culture survive ... Today if I look around at all the tribes, we survived and stood the test of time."

Lummi Potlatch

The next morning the canoes continued their paddle to Lummi. The reached the Lummi reservation on July 30, following stops at the Tulalip, Swinomish, and Samish reservations. The northern canoes reached Lummi the same day, one of them bearing a bride from Bella Coola whose traditional wedding to a Lummi groom was one of the highlights of the weeklong celebration that followed.

The potlatch was the largest at Lummi in seventy years. In addition to the wedding, it featured slahal, the traditional gambling game using bones -- and a photographic display of a complete set of 14,000-year-old slahal bones (part of the Washington State Historical Society Collection) that demonstrated the game's antiquity -- along with feasting, singing, dancing, and gift-giving.

Sources: Jasa Santos, "History in Mukilteo: Hundreds Watch as Dozens of Canoes Come Ashore for the First Major Gathering of American Indian Tribes in the City Since 1855," Herald (Everett), July 27, 2007, pp. A-1, A-12; Cat Sieh, "Potlatch Marks End of Tribal Fest," The Bellingham Herald, August 6, 2007 (; Mary Lane Gallagher, "Artifacts Attest to Indian Game’s Antiquity," Ibid., August 1, 2007; Ibid., John Stark, "Canoes Amass for Final Push to Lummi," Ibid., July 28, 2007; Kirsten Orsini-Meinhard, "Tribes To Gather At Treaty Site," The Seattle Times, July 27, 2007 (; Levi Pulkkinen, "Canoes Bring Tribes Together For Potlatch," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 27, 2007 (; "Paddle to Lummi Canoe Journey," Indian Country Today website accessed August 22, 2007 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Treaty of Point Elliott, 1855," "Mukilteo Light Station" (by Daryl C. McClary), and "Indian tribes gather in Juanita to re-enact signing of 1855 Point Elliott Treaty on May 27, 1933" (by Alan J. Stein) (accessed August 22, 2007).

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