TULALIP — Their ancestors had signed it generations before.
About 150 tribal members gathered to inspect the Treaty of Point Elliott in January, on the anniversary of its creation.
Nearly all were seeing it for the first time.
After 165 years, the treaty has returned to the land where it was signed. It’s now on display at the Hibulb Cultural Center on the Tulalip Indian Reservation, one of the reservations established by the treaty.
On Jan. 22, 1855, thousands were drawn to the shores of what is now Mukilteo to witness the signing of the Treaty of Point Elliott. Today it’s considered one of the most important documents to Native American tribes around the Puget Sound.
It secured sovereignty for the tribes and gave them rights to land, education, health care, continuing traditional ways of life and more.
Yet so much, it turned out, was left to interpretation. Over the years some aspects of these agreements have been challenged in court, such as the landmark 1974 case known as the Boldt decision that guarantees the tribes half of all salmon and steelhead harvests.
The document is far from a fusty relic.
It is invoked today to bolster tribal arguments on many subjects, from greater environmental protections to patent rights on native trees, flowers and shrubs — the DNA of every plant that naturally grows here. Like the U.S. Constitution, the words written those many years ago are a framework for deciding issues the signatories never could have imagined.
The treaty is part of the exhibit, “The Power of Words: A History of Tulalip Literacy.” It’s on loan from the National Archives in Washington, D.C. for six months.
Another part of the exhibit honors tribal elders who have become authors, including the late Stan Jones, Sr., whose daughter Teri Gobin has followed in his footsteps to lead the tribal government.
Jones died in November, and since then some of his research has been passed down to Gobin. It includes accounts from people who were at the signing on that winter day so long ago. Some said Tulalip was promised as a temporary reservation.
“Our reservation was supposed to be from Edmonds to the Stillaguamish River, from the water to the mountains,” Gobin said. “So you see how far it got pushed back to our little reservation of Tulalip. But we’re proud of our reservation, we’re proud of our tribe and we’re proud of what our ancestors stood up for, looking out for future generations.”
Several tribes signed the Treaty of Point Elliott, including the Duwamish, Suquamish, Lummi, Skagit and Swinomish.
Each has been invited to carry out their own ceremonies at the cultural center.
Others were from the Snohomish, Snoqualmie and Skykomish tribes, that joined to become the Tulalip Tribes.
One hundred signatures fill the final pages of the Treaty of Point Elliott — 82 are simple X marks, representing those from the tribes.
Before the treaty, native languages were never written, only spoken, Tulalip Tribes Vice Chairman Glen Gobin said.
“It didn’t mean we were illiterate,” he said. “We knew everything about the environment we lived in, we knew everything about the seasons as they come, we knew how to build homes, we knew how to build canoes.”
“We knew how to take care of each other,” Teri Gobin added.
After the signing, tribal leaders knew it was important to learn to read and write.
“Our elders even today say, ‘Go and get an education, go and learn, but never forget who you are and where you come from,’” Glen Gobin said. “’Bring your knowledge back and help your people.’”
Hibulb Cultural Center curator Tessa Campbell and assistant curator Emilie Miller started working on the project about a year and a half ago.
At first they only expected to celebrate authors from Tulalip. Once the pair started to read the writers’ books, they noticed each talked about literacy.
They decided to explore how the treaty brought literacy to Tulalip, through education and the need to fight for treaty rights.
“One of the goals is to promote literacy for younger generations so they can become the future authors to preserve our culture and history, to tell their story in their own words,” Campbell said.
Bringing the treaty to Tulalip was a long process. Campbell filled out 45 pages describing the museum — everything from the construction of the structure, to what kind of concrete was used, to how prepared the building would be for an earthquake, she said.
Inside the exhibit, the treaty is near the entrance. It’s kept in a wood and glass case, with humidity and temperature gauges inside. Each sheet is enclosed in its own glass frame.
Because the document is double sided, some of the 11 pieces of paper are photo copies. It’s hard to tell which are authentic, but a nearby sign makes it clear.
Each page has a tan tint and the ink seems to be dark brown, the flowing penmanship still crisp.
All 15 articles are handwritten in an impressive cursive script, usually only seen these days in history books.
In one column of signatures, the first three names to appear are Isaac Stevens, who was governor of the Territory of Washington; Chief Seattle of the Duwamish tribe; and Chief Pat-ka-nam of the Snohomish tribe. Some native names are followed by English ones, such as Jackson or Peter.
A few pages are stamped in the bottom right hand corner with a small, blue circle that reads, “The National Archives of the United States.”
There were two options to transport the treaty across the country, Campbell said. One had a $6,000 price tag and the driver made multiple stops.
Instead, the museum chose to move the treaty in its own armored vehicle with two drivers. They only stopped for gas and took turns sleeping. It cost $60,000.
For years Campbell and Miller have saved money by designing their own exhibits.
They had planned to put the extra cash toward something significant in the future, and this was it.
Along with that money, an anonymous donor in Everett recently gave the museum $50,000.
Before this trip, the treaty had never left the National Archives. It’s rare for these kinds of documents to leave the collection, said Eric Eberhard, an indigenous law professor at the University of Washington.
“There are 570 federally recognized tribes all over the country, and I’ve been working in Indian law for 50 years,” he said. “I’ve only seen the original treaties displayed outside of Washington (D.C.) twice.”
That’s likely because many reservations don’t have the resources to care for the irreplaceable documents, he said. That could change as more reservations open their own museums.
“It’s really great they’re able to bring it out here,” he said. “It’s completely different than looking at it in a book.”
Tulalip Tribes Councilman Les Parks grew up in Tulalip, and was first elected to office in 1996. He’s writing a book about his family’s lineage.
When Parks first saw the treaty in person the other week, he looked for the X mark of a Snohomish sub-chief who was given the English name Bonaparte.
By 1871, Bonaparte was the last living chief of more than a dozen who had signed the treaty. Parks has studied that man’s story, and it was significant for him to see where Bonaparte actually touched a pen to the paper.
“How good it felt to have these leaders who signed it in our presence,” Parks said.
He began to learn about the treaty through his family history. The book he’s writing now goes back seven generations, to one of his ancestors who would have been at the treaty signing. Because much of the tribes’ history from that time was not written down, he’s had to use his imagination for some parts.
Each year on the anniversary of the signing, the tribes celebrate Treaty Days. Parks sees it somewhat as a day of mourning.
“It’s the document that we gave everything up, but it’s also the document that allowed us to continue on with our culture and who we are today,” he said. “We use that document to ensure our culture and history lives on.”
If you go
“The Power of Words: A History of Tulalip Literacy” is open to the public now. The Treaty of Point Elliott is on display until July, and the exhibit runs until December.
The Hibulb Cultural Center is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, at 6410 23rd Ave. NE, Tulalip.
Ticket prices vary. Find more information online at HibulbCulturalCenter.org.