Tribal children meet their history

ARLINGTON John Yeager is just 9 years old, but he can recite the names of a host of forest animals in Lushootseed, the ancient language of his Stillaguamish tribal ancestors.

“It helps to learn about our culture, and how we lived,” Yeager said as he walked Tuesday along a road nestled deep in the forest near Arlington. “I want to learn as much Lushootseed as I can so I can pass it along to other people.”

That’s why Yeager signed up for a nature walk through the Stillaguamish Tribe’s Summer Youth Program. For the first time, tribal children were welcomed into a forest of nearly 5,000 acres owned by the U. S. Navy.

The Jim Creek Naval Radio Station contains satellite equipment used to direct submarines. Radio towers and the wires that stretch between them crown the jagged acres, but all is quiet on the forest floor.

That’s where Navy forester Walter Briggs spends his time. On Tuesday, he sloshed through inches of mud toward specimens of red alder and Douglas fir, urging the Stillaguamish children to trudge alongside him. As he walked, he slashed bits of trees and plants and tucked the samples in his breast pocket.

“Ah-ha!” he cried when he spotted salmon-colored berries peeking out from beneath a screen of green leaves. “Anybody know this plant? These are huckleberries these are good!”

The children plucked the ripest berries from their stems as Lora Pennington, a cultural resources worker for the Stillaguamish Tribe, repeated Lushootseed words to describe what they’d found.

“These horse tails we’re passing are Indian emory boards,” she explained as the children brushed through plant’s long fronds. “When it dries, it’s rough.”

Briggs collected specimens for each child and helped them tuck everything between two press boards secured by a black strap.

“When (the Stillaguamish Tribe) asked about this, I said, ‘Absolutely,’ ” Briggs said. “There are consumptive and nonconsumptive uses of the forest, and consumptive uses are part of human history.”

Last winter, Briggs welcomed Stillaguamish tribal members into the woods to strip cedar bark a practice that dates back thousands of years. For the first time in recent history, the tribal members were able to collect the bark in the woods that were their home before they moved to reservations in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Tribal members now are using that bark to create decorative pins, woven baskets and bailers used to haul water out of ocean-going canoes.

This week, it was the children’s turn to learn about the gifts of the forest.

Briggs led them over felled trees, around blackberry briars and through chest-high grass to a cedar tree that had been stripped months ago.

Pennington repeated the Lushootseed phrases for the cedar’s wood and bark.

“We’re trying to incorporate the language into every day,” she said. “Even if they’re just learning terminology, they need to be exposed to it. Walter helps us make this fun.”

Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or

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