By Niki Cleary
Let’s talk about Priest Point from a tribal perspective. My people (the ancestors of the Tulalip Tribes) signed a treaty with the federal government in 1855, before Washington was a state. We gave up a lot in return for several promises including education, health care, hunting and gathering rights and 22,000 acres.
Look at the word reservation. To reserve is to keep something. One of the things we reserved for ourselves was a homeland. Granted it was only a tiny fraction of what we once claimed as our territory, but it was ours.
Along comes the Dawes Act, or the General Allotment Act, called by Theodore Roosevelt, “The mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass.” Hmm. Doesn’t sound good, does it? It wasn’t. Reservation lands were allotted according to a formula and, amazingly enough, there was more land than was allotted for each Indian. What happened to those excess lands? The feds took them away from us and allowed non-Indians to homestead them. In 1837 tribally owned land in the United States was reduced from 138 million acres to 34 million acres. Bummer deal.
A little later on down the line, tribal members were endowed with the ability to sell their allotments. Keep in mind at this time no one can do business on the reservation without an Indian Traders License, Indians are considered the scum of the earth at best, and we are beaten and jailed for harvesting traditional foods. You also have to remember that we weren’t considered persons until the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act (did you know that you have to be legally a person to sell your land?). Back to my story, we’re living in abject poverty, therefore it’s not surprising that many of our people sold their lands. Those that bought them, bought them for a pittance.
Move forward to modern times. Changes in federal policy acknowledge that tribes do, in fact, have the right to exist, and maybe the federal government wasn’t doing such a great thing by trying to exterminate us (whether by physically killing us off, or through assimilation policies). The tribes also begin to have economic wealth for the first time since contact, and we do two very important things with that wealth: we provide services to our people and we buy back our land.
What does this have to do with Priest Point? The letters to the editor lambasting Tulalip for perpetrating prejudice and for depriving young children of the time-honored pastime of fishing for fun and subsistence. Ooh, this sounds so familiar, anybody recall the last 100 years of Indian policy?
Priest Point is a culturally important site for the tribe. Historically our ancestors had villages in the area, our people lived, died and were buried there. In 2001 an archeological dig was conducted at the site when a backhoe operator unearthed human remains. The operator was hired by Millstone Coffee founder Phil Johnson to prepare a three-lot site for the construction of his new home. Tulalip was onsite throughout the dig to protect our cultural interests. Ultimately Tulalip purchased the land at Priest Point to protect the site from development. Since that time (that’s since 2001, not just in the last month) “no trespassing” signs have been posted, and torn down repeatedly.
Although I don’t expect people to immerse themselves in cultures outside their own, I do want to point out a very prominent hypocrisy. The non-native residents of the Priest Point area have vocally and sometimes violently denied tribal members access to the tidelands reserved for us by our treaty with the federal government. But that wasn’t a big deal. The tribe, respectfully asked people to stay off of two dilapidated and dangerous piers, and we’re the ones who are prejudiced? Thought so, just checking.
Let me put this in very simple terms. Tulalip owns the land at Priest Point and just like any property owner, we have the right to grant or deny access to our property to whomever we choose. It makes sense that we extend the welcome mat to our families and ask others to hang out elsewhere. It’s certainly preferential treatment, but not, in my opinion, prejudiced.
For the kids so painfully denied the right to fish on the tribes property, maybe you should ask your neighbors if you can use their docks. There are many in good repair all within sight of the Tribe’s property.
Niki Cleary is a Tulalip Tribal citizen.