A bridge between white, Indian worlds, William Shelton preserved his culture

TULALIP — From the time of his birth in 1868, young Whah-kay-dub’s parents groomed him to be tribal spiritual leader, an “Indian doctor.”

They raised him at Sandy Point on Whidbey Island and in Mukilteo, away from the white boarding schools that operated on the Tulalip Indian Reservation.

The boy was steeped in tribal traditions. He fasted during spirit quests in the wild. He took long hikes through the woods and swam in ice-cold water.

As he approached adulthood, though, he saw friends reading and writing and he wanted to go to school to learn the white man’s ways. So when he was about 17, against his parents’ wishes, Whah-kay-dub paddled away from Sandy Point in a canoe to live on the Tulalip reservation for the first time.

There, Whah-kay-dub — later to be known as William Shelton — became a much more important figure than either his parents or the white world would ever imagine.

He taught himself to carve and used his knowledge of the Indian and white worlds to revive a huge part of indigenous tribal culture and make it accessible to the nontribal world.

Now, through his carvings and artifacts, he’s doing the same at the Hibulb Cultural Center and museum that opened on the reservation last August.

“He wanted to preserve and to show the world what his culture was about,” said David Dilgard, a Northwest history specialist at the Everett library.

Early in the 20th century, Shelton was the reservation’s greatest ambassador to the world outside the reservation.

He spoke at club meetings and school classes, attended fairs and gave radio interviews. He spoke at the dedication of Everett’s Legion Park in 1937, shortly before his death from pneumonia the following year at age 70, according to the city.

“I love my people, but I see the other side, too,” he told the Seattle Times in 1932. “As long as we stay apart from the white brothers and live among ourselves on reservations, we will never get anyplace. We must mix. We must be one with the white brothers.”

About 200 of the 1,000 items in the Hibulb museum’s collection were either made by Shelton or came from among other items stored on his family’s property, assistant curator Tessa Campbell said.

When the building opened in August, “the spirit of this gentleman was all over it, it was all the way through,” Dilgard said.

The items were donated by Shelton’s grandson, Wayne Williams, now 83, who still lives in his grandfather’s house. It’s by far the largest contribution from any one tribal member.

It was the dream of Shelton’s daughter, Harriette Shelton Williams Dover, to have a museum for all the artifacts, and she started pushing for it in 1950s, museum director Hank Gobin said.

Harriette Dover died in 1991 at age 87, but other tribal members, especially Gobin, took up the cause for a museum. After years of planning, the $19 million cultural center and natural history preserve opened last year.

Story poles, canoes, sticks, boards, rattles and bowls made by Shelton are among the items on display and in museum storage.

He collected many other items, including canoes, canoe bailers and baskets. The earliest known date for an item is a canoe made in 1880 he bought for $50, Campbell said.

One of Shelton’s items on display is a potlatch serving bowl shaped like a canoe. Williams said he sat in the bowl as a boy and pulled himself across the floor, as if paddling.

“I’d kill my grandson if he did that,” he said, laughing.

Williams was around for the last 10 years of Shelton’s life. He received a couple of paddlings from his grandfather, but remembers him as a loving man.

“I’m fortunate to have known him,” he said.

Four thick, heavy poles carved and painted by Shelton can be seen in the museum’s replica longhouse. The poles stood inside the longhouse Shelton built on the reservation in 1913.

Shelton was known off the reservation for his story poles. They depicted spirit helpers, including animals, birds and people, encountered on vision quests by members of tribes from around the region. Shelton later recounted the stories he collected from the elders in published articles.

“There is a broken link between my race and the white people,” Shelton wrote in “Indian Totem Legends of the Northwest Coast Country” in 1913, an article originally printed for an Indian school in Oklahoma and later in The Herald.

“So I thought I better look back and talk to the older people that are living and try to explain our history by getting their totems and carve them out on the pole like the way it used to be years ago,” Shelton wrote.

The proper term for spirit helpers in Lushootseed, the local tribal language, is “sklaletut.” For simplicity Shelton used the word “totem,” which actually refers to family-crest style poles from Alaska and British Columbia, Dilgard said.

One of the sklaletut poles stood for decades at 44th Street SE and Evergreen Way in Everett — for which the Totem restaurant was named. Photos of the 60-foot pole are still displayed in the restaurant’s entryway. The pole was first erected in 1922 at California Street and Wetmore Avenue in downtown Everett and moved to Evergreen Way in 1929, according to Dilgard.

The pole deteriorated and was taken down in the late ’80s or early ’90s. It’s now being preserved in a warehouse on the Tulalip reservation, Campbell said.

Another pole still stands, now in two parts, in front of Tulalip Elementary School on the reservation.

In the mid-1930s, then-Gov. Roland Hartley asked Shelton to carve a pole for the Capitol campus in Olympia. He started carving the 85-foot pole but died before he could finish. Others completed the pole and it stood on the campus, through several refurbishments, from 1940 until it was taken down last year.

Other poles carved by Shelton were displayed as far away as Illinois and Pennsylvania, Williams said.

After his schooling at Tulalip, Shelton worked in a sawmill on the reservation, honing skills that later came in handy for carving. Shelton eventually did just about every job at the sawmill, including supervisor.

Shelton was helped by the fact that he picked up English very quickly, said Dilgard, who obtained much of his information about the tribal leader from Shelton’s daughter, Harriette.

Whah-kay-dub had been raised by his Snohomish mother and Skykomish father speaking Lushootseed, which the U.S. government had banned on the reservation. Many younger tribal members of Shelton’s time didn’t speak Lushootseed, nor did whites. Many of the older Indians didn’t speak English.

Shelton was able to move easily in both worlds.

“There weren’t many who could do that,” Dilgard said. “He was highly intelligent, highly gifted in a lot of ways.”

Shelton married, raised a family, and held many other positions of responsibility, including serving as chief of police, supervising timber sales and raising war bonds during World War I.

At some point, as Shelton approached middle age, his desire to preserve tribal culture began to grow.

“He sort of launched a cultural counterattack” against government rules, Dilgard said.

The sawmill provided a place for Shelton to handle large logs that he would use for his poles, Dilgard said.

In 1913 he approached Charles Buchanan, the U.S. government official who supervised the reservation, and asked for permission to build a longhouse. This was no small matter, because tribal ceremonies traditionally took place in longhouses, prompting their banishment by the U.S. government.

Shelton told Buchanan the longhouse would be used only for events to commemorate the 1855 treaty signing in Mukilteo between the government and local tribes.

It might not have been the whole truth, Gobin said.

“I think Buchanan went for that,” he said. “It was really in the minds of the old people that this commemoration would be an opportunity to show the younger children the spiritual lifeways of their people.”

Shelton never was a tribal official — Indian reservations were not granted the right to self-governance until 1934. Still, he was a respected leader at Tulalip. Because of his position, he received many items as gifts, Gobin said.

“Charles Buchanan and others wanted William to burn those, destroy those, and he wouldn’t do it,” Gobin said. “He was very defiant. He told them, ‘That represents the history of our people.’”

In Shelton’s later years, he became a sought-after authority on Indian matters, Dilgard said.

“He became sort of a public relations person (for Indians), a sort of spokesman,” he said.

Shelton sometimes wore a feathered bonnet of the type worn by Great Plains tribes, even though it was not the regalia of his own people.

Shelton wore the bonnet as a way of breaking the ice, Dilgard said. It was easier for non-tribal people to understand.

“He had a sensibility that was larger than any single Native American tribe,” Dilgard said. “‘I’m an Indian’ — that was the first thing he wanted people to know.”

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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