Moses, Marya D. (1911-2006)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 8/31/2009
  • Essay 9134
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Marya D. Moses was raised within a Native American tribal culture that since time immemorial had included roles for both men and women to contribute to the gathering and preparing of salmon from local rivers and the rich waters of Puget Sound. But by the mid-twentieth century, the job of fishing amongst tribal members had effectively been monopolized by males. Until, that is, Moses emerged as a pioneering female commercial fisherwoman working from the Tulalip Indian Reservation in Snohomish County. Beyond setting that modern-day precedent however, Moses -- a bright and feisty individual (who even described herself in various interviews as "aggressive," "excitable," "mouthy," and "ornery") -- also achieved numerous other accomplishments throughout her long life. Among them are: the mothering of 11 children; serving as a member of the Tulalip Tribes' Board of Directors; becoming a published writer; and playing a key role in saving her native Lushootseed language from extinction. In addition, Moses had a stellar memory for historical detail. In the 1989 book, Winds of Change, she admitted that "I remember lots of stuff way back -- ahn-ka-tee -- that's Chinook for 'long ago.'"

Stories from Long Ago ...

On September 30, 1911, Marya (pronounced "Mariah") Jones was born in a humble barn on the Tulalip Reservation to her Snohomish Indian parents -- William Jones and Nancy (nee Boomhouse) Jones. And although Marya's grandfather, Johnny (Datsios Quitkadib) Boomhouse, had previously homesteaded a full 160-acre rural land parcel, the Jones' large family -- Marya was ultimately joined by two sisters and a dozen brothers -- settled into a tiny home in the village of Tulalip where they lived very happily.

Memories from Marya's early childhood include hearing stories about how tribal members fished, picked berries, and hunted. And too, her mother related how the tribes monitored seasonal moons before setting out to collect and dry clams on the beaches of nearby Camano, Whidbey, and Gedney (Hat) Islands in preparation for the challenges of the upcoming winter. Some of those clams were traded to visiting Yakama Indians for blankets and beads and others were sold or traded to white people down in the town of Everett. 

Native Ways

Marya and her siblings were steeped in the traditional ways of her people: Their beloved grandparents spoke the Chinook Jargon, and she also grew up speaking the ancient Coast Salish language, Lushootseed. The kids all led rather sheltered lives on the reservation and in a 1982 interview conducted for the Tulalip Oral Biography Project (TOBP) Marya recalled that her initial foray off the reservation and into the bordering town of Marysville was a frightening and memorable one:

"I didn’t get out until I was almost 12 years old. That’s the first time I went to town. I went with my Aunt Lena and Grandma. I was sure terrified, I really was. They let me off by Hilton’s Drug Store and I guess they went someplace and I remember my heart beating, so scared. Well the white people weren’t so very good to us there, you know ... . I guess we were considered siwashes [an old derogatory term in Chinook Jargon] or something. But it was scary then. You know, they weren’t friendly like how they are now" (TOBP).

The Treaty and the Boarding School 

The original 22,000-acre Tulalip Tribes' reservation -- located just north of Everett and West of Marysville -- came about as a direct result of the Point Elliott Treaty with the U.S. government. Signed at Mukilteo by the reluctant leaders of 22 local tribes on January 22, 1855, it forced many members of the Samish, Skagit, Snohomish, Snoqualmie, Stillaguamish, and Suiattle (along with the small band of Tulalip people from the Hood Canal area) to abandon their ancestral lands and relocate to Tulalip Bay where they would all forthwith be pushed together into an uneasy proximity. Over time resentments grew -- especially towards the government's failure to enforce the individual tribes' treaty rights to continue fishing various rivers.

In the 1880s the government launched various efforts to assimilate tribal peoples into the mainstream of American society. One particularly regrettable program consisted of forcing Indian children into strictly run boarding schools where the quasi-military atmosphere was intended to isolate young students -- who were often there because their parents had faced the threat of incarceration if they objected -- from traditional teachings, native spiritual practices, and even their original languages. And thus, as a mere child of about 8 years, Marya was taken from her family's home by federal officials and placed in the Tulalip Boarding School. Throughout the following seven years she was among her generation of kids who were forced to speak English. But Marya never did lose her deep fondness for the forbidden Lushootseed language.  

Like many a youthful person, Marya was also tempted on occasion to flirt with boys and experiment with both cigarettes and a bit of moonshine liquor. Upon discovering these transgressions, her mother responded in a traditional way: by informing other adults -- including Chief William Shelton -- who each stopped by to have a few words of guidance with the teen. "See, she didn’t tongue lash me, but she just told the others," Marya recalled. "And I got so ashamed. It did help me all right. Just think:  I still remember now the kind words. They spoke kind words" (TOHP). 

Marya's formal education came to a halt one day while working at the school's laundry sweatshop. Observed while perspiring heavily, she was suddenly pulled away by a Dr. Curran who, without conducting any actual tests, diagnosed her as having tuberculosis. She (along with 30 other kids) was sent off to a medical facility at Pyramid Lake in Nevada. Because no testing was done there either, it remains a mystery as to whether or not Marya ever did have that disease -- she long maintained that she'd been perfectly well all along -- but upon her return to Tulalip six months later, she was now (at age 16) deemed too old to attend further classes. 

Married with Kids

In 1928 Marya married Walter Moses (1907-1951) and promptly moved in with him and his parents up in the Cascade foothills along the Sauk River -- an eye-opening experience that she marveled "was like going back 200 years." After a few years there, the couple -- who were eventually blessed with 11 children (five sons: Walter Jr. ("Carnegie"), Raymond, Victor, Gilbert, and Danny; and six daughters: Johanna, Vicki, Rachel, Julie, Teresa, and April) -- relocated to the rather more modernized realities of the Tulalip reservation. But their timing saw the Moses family arrive in the midst of the the financial cruelties of the Great Depression, and life on the reservation was a bleak struggle where employment opportunities were scarce, government help was minimal, and food rations were sent in from the East Coast by train. 

"The only time that I remember [receiving any government assistance] during the Depression is:  I believe two of our leaders brought some flour," Mayra reminisced bitterly. "And oh, I thanked them, thanked them. And then they put it in the house and pretty soon the worms started crawling up the walls. Oh we had to throw them out. That was ... just imagine that" (TOBP). Her son Ray also recalled that fiasco: "My mother would have to clean the cereal and flour and pick out the worms." Facing such desperate times, she eventually instructed her sons to head off to live in the forested Cascade Mountain foothills outside of Darrington where they could survive by hunting and fishing with less risk of arrest by law enforcement officials. As Ray recalled: "There was no food on the reservation. We could live off the land in the mountains" (Kapralos). 

Gold Star Mother

Marya purposefully raised her sons to be patriotic and two (Walter and Ray) went on to serve in the Korean War (1950-1953). Many years later -- and while reflecting on the shameful way the United States often treats its veterans -- Marya momentarily questioned all that: "Now I wonder if I made a mistake ..." When one son, Pfc. Walter Moses, Jr. (1931-1953) gave his life in combat on May 29, 1953, "He thought that he was fighting, you know, for a good cause," Marya bitterly recalled. "But some of these rich people, their kids stayed and went to college."

Yet even as a grieving Gold Star Mother, Marya retained her deep love of country over the decades: "I’m very proud of it. I’m proud to be an American. I must be, because everybody else wants to be, they’re coming and crowding our shores" (TOBP). The memory of the deceased soldier was eventually honored with the dedication of a street -- Walter Moses Jr. Drive -- just east of the shores of Tulalip Bay.

A Fishing People

The shores of Puget Sound had provided a good life to area Natives for eons – and salmon and various other seafood was a cornerstone of their diet. Indeed, they were critical to their survival. "The fishing was so important, Marya once explained, that "when the white man came and made a treaty with us, we asked for nothing but to keep our fish, clams, and berries. We let all the other, like timber, gold, silver, coal, and everything [go]. So you could see how important this fishing was to the Indians here. We asked very, very little in return. Now, it makes me boiling mad when they make it sound as if it is greed when we insist on our fishing rights. The greed is not on our part" (Alison p. 20).

Even beyond the hostile long-term and recent efforts by some non-Indian interests to attempt to limit or halt Indian access to various salmon runs, there has always been disdain expressed for their ways. As Marya explained it: "they used to make fun of the Indians. 'Hey you fish-eaters,' you 'fish-eaters.' And that was, of course, you know [for] the white man there was steaks and all that, you know. And gosh: the old fish-eaters, they used to make fun of us. And then 'clam eaters' and [other such epithets were hurled]" (TOBP). 

"You know, [our people] just wanted to live and just fish and put away for winter. And then maybe trade. They would trade the fish, maybe somebody had something else, you know. They would barter, I guess. Same with the clams. They’d dig clams and maybe they’d trade for a basket or something."

Womens' Work

The premature death of her husband in 1951 brought even more hardship to Marya and her family. Landlords were reluctant to rent a house to a welfare widow with nine dependent kids and life's pressures mounted. But, she made ends meet along the way by taking on various jobs including: splitting cedar shakes, working in a fish cannery, and knitting "Indian socks," for sale or trade.

Before long Marya fell into a rather unusual new occupation: that of commercial fishing. Now, Indian women had a deep past with the arts of catching and preparing fish, but having a woman acquire her own boat for the task was rather unprecedented.

But, it was a career path she forged out of necessity in the wake of two medical operations in September and October of 1952. After healing a bit she got back on her feet by taking on the job of setting up a cooking station on McGee's Beach where she prepared meals for a group of other fishermen including her nephew, Tommy Gobin. But after a couple weeks, the fish run fell off and the men hauled in no catch. Indebted to the reservation store for her supplies, she became desperate and announced that she couldn't continue making meals -- a bit of news that caused Gobin to suggest that she try fishing on her own. With a gift of 400-feet of old net, his idea gave her a much-needed life-line and a new income stream.

Uncommon Waters

It was a chance encounter with a roving junkman who was seeking to buy or trade used items that brought about the opportunity for Marya to acquire an old boat which had been wrecked in a storm. After a little bartering session, Marya was the proud owner of a dubious 16-foot boat (which had had two feet chopped off during a repair by that junkman) replete with a small gas engine. Thus the beginnings of an uncommon career trajectory -- and a new life working the beautiful waters of Puget Sound.

"So," she recalled, "the girls and I [started fishing]; my crew was my daughters." With the help of Vicki, Rachel, and April, Marya began a new life -- one that was unusual enough to draw teasing comments by area fishermen. "They used to sneer, 'Oh, Marya and her all-girl crew" (Allison p. 21). It took some time to learn the means and methods of successful fishing around the Mission Bar out in Tulalip Bay and other areas, but in time they got the knack and Marya's income increased to the extent that she was able to get off welfare payments.

Winds of Change

One day an ailing fisherman offered Marya the chance to buy all his gear for $575 -- and that is how she acquired a second watercraft, a beach seine boat the St. Anne. Although she wound up modifying this boat -- chopping it down from 26 to 22-feet long -- it expanded her realm of productive activities and her income stream.

Indeed, when interviewed in 1980 for the book Winds of Change: Women in Northwest Commercial Fishing, she rhapsodized about fishing and her beloved St. Anne. "I just love fishing. ... I like the beach seining. That's my life. ... It's a lot of fun, and it's a lot of work too. ... Beach seining is my life. I love it. ... St. Anne is part of me. We just love her" (Allison pp.22-23).

Numerous Puget Sound-based First Peoples have long felt keen dissatisfaction with the ways that the government has failed to honor their end of the old Point Elliot Treaty  particularly that part about the Indian's retaining a guaranteed ability to continue fishing at historic, "usual and accustomed places." Thus, the eruption in the 1960s and 1970s of several local tribes' re-assertion of their fishing rights in a long series of highly publicized confrontations with various law enforcement entities (which collectively became known as the region's "Fishing Wars"). But because many of those conflicts were fought over river fishing, Marya's activities at Tulalip Bay were not directly affected.

It was around 1978 that Marya acquired her third boat, Four Winds, which she and her family also grew very fond of.  And her example as a successful fisherwoman served as a fine role model: Her aunt, Celia, took up fishing and came to own a boat, as did two daughters (one of whom had acquired her own boat by 1980) and one grand-neice. 

Then in 1983 the film-maker, Lloyd Weller, produced a documentary, A Fishing People: A Story About Tulalip Indian Salmon Fishing, which included coverage of various tribal members -- including Marya.

Lushootseed Voices

Meanwhile, the years passed by and around 1992 it was determined that only 17  elders of the Tulalip Tribes who spoke fluent Lushootseed still remained. That is when the Tulalip's Tribal Cultural Resources Department founded the Lushootseed Language Department with the goal of preserving their language and culture. With the help of academic specialists, a project was launched to compile a definitive Lushootseed grammar book.  

As The Seattle Times noted later of Marya: "Linguists trying to preserve the language spent years tapping her knowledge." Her work along with that of Skagit elder Vi Hilbert and linguist Tom Hess resulted in the Lushootseed Dictionary in 1994. In addition, Marya also contributed as a consultant to the Lushootseed Readers series first published in 1995. Then, upon her death a decade hence, Marya was acknowledged as having been the last surviving speaker of her native tongue.

But in her latter years, Marya also took up a new avocation -- that of writing essays and relating various native stories and legends. Her evocative essay "Ahn-ka-tee" was even chosen as one of 34 pieces included in the 1998 anthology, Uncommon Waters: Women Write about Fishing. That same year she she co-authored (with Toby C. S. Langen) another piece titled "Reading Martha Lamont's Crow Story Today." The fine quality of her writings were later acknowledged by the poet, Brian Swann, in his compendium of native stories, Voices From Four Directions.

Like a Giant Cedar

Marya D. Moses -- grandmother to 40-plus children -- passed away at the age of 95 on September 26, 2006. She was buried in the historic Priest Point cemetery in her hometown of Tulalip. On Monday, October 2, more than 500 people gathered at the Tulalip Reservation for the funeral.

Her longtime priest, Rev. Patrick Twahy, eulogized her saying that "She was proud of being Indian, and she had a deep faith in God. She was like the most giant cedar: she had her roots deep in her culture. She had the interior strength of her faith. When a cedar like that goes down, it leaves enormous absence" (Kapralos).

Sources: "Tulalip Oral Biography Project: Marya Moses," transcript of interview, May 1982 (copy in possession of Tulalip Tribes); American Battle Monuments Commission website accessed on August 5, 2009 (; Charlene J. Allison, Sue-Ellen Jacobs, and Mary A. Porter, Winds of Change: Women in Northwest Commercial Fishing (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1989), 18-26; Dawn Bates, Thom Hess, and VI Hilbert, Lushootseed Dictionary (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994);  Uncommon Waters: Women Write about Fishing ed. by Holly Morris (Berkeley, California, Seattle: Seal Press, 1998); Toby C. S . Langen, "Translator’s Introduction to the Text," Reading Martha Lamont’s Crow Story Today, Oral Tradition website accessed August 3, 2009 (; Brian Swann, Voices From Four Directions (Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 2004), 172; "Tulalip Indian Film to Be Shown Today," The Daily Herald, March 26, 2005; Krista J. Kapralos, "Tulalips Mourn Loss of Last Native Speaker," The Daily Herald, October 3, 2006, p. 1.
Note: This essay was corrected on January 25, 2012, and again on December 11, 2012.

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