We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.


Native Peoples of the Olympic Peninsula: Who We Are (2nd Edition)

By Jacilee Wray, editor for Olympic Peninsula Intertribal Cultural Advisory Committee

The Sea is My Country: The Maritime World of the Makahs

By Joshua L. Reid

Review By Alan D. McMillan

November 12, 2015

BC Studies no. 190 Summer 2016  | p. 135-137

Waterways such as the Strait of Juan de Fuca were vital transportation corridors for the First Nations of the coast. People regularly traversed the strait in their large efficient canoes for trading or raiding expeditions or to visit relatives. However, the 1846 imposition of the international boundary down the middle of the strait placed these formerly linked communities into either British or American jurisdictions, disrupting long-established networks. The Klallam near Victoria fell on the opposite side of the border as the three Klallam (or S’Klallam) communities on the Olympic Peninsula. The Makah, who made frequent open-ocean canoe voyages to their Nuu-chah-nulth, Ditidaht, and Pacheedaht relatives along the west coast of Vancouver Island, found themselves separated from their kin, as well as cut off from important marine resources. Strong cultural connections still exist across the strait, from both the British Columbia and Washington sides.

The Indigenous peoples of the Olympic Peninsula are introduced in the book edited by anthropologist Jacilee Wray for the Olympic Peninsula Intertribal Cultural Advisory Committee. This slender volume provides brief descriptions of the nine separate tribal communities on the Olympic Peninsula today. Eight different languages, from three distinct linguistic families, were once spoken in this region, attesting to its cultural diversity. Most belong to the widespread Salish family, as is also true on the British Columbia side of the border. The exceptions are the Makah, closely linked to the people of western Vancouver Island, and the distinct Quileute and Hoh peoples. Each community is the subject of a chapter written by community members and reviewed by tribal councils. As a result, the chapters present tribal perspectives on their history and what issues are important to them today. Chapters follow a similar format, starting with an overview of the traditional culture and historic changes and then dealing with the reservation communities today, including heritage programs and visitor attractions (such as tribal museums). Shared experiences, such as the impact of the treaties signed between 1854 and 1856, run through the chapters, yet each also presents issues distinct and important to that community. Cultural traditions remain strong today, with many communities establishing heritage centres and language programs, although few speakers of the traditional languages remain.

This book was first published in 2002. The second edition, with a different publisher, adds recent developments. Removal of two major dams on the Lower Elwha River, completed in 2014, allowed salmon to again ascend the river and provided the Klallam access to culturally important locations for the first time in a century. Another important event for the Lower Elwha Klallam was the discovery and excavation of an ancient village at Port Angeles during a construction project, although digging came to a halt when numerous human remains were encountered. After negotiations, a portion of the site was allocated for reburials and a museum was constructed to display the artefacts and to promote cultural heritage. Another new theme in several chapters is the resurgence of “canoe culture” and the large-scale canoe journeys involving multiple communities from around the Olympic Peninsula to far up the British Columbia coast. Despite these additions, however, most articles have been only lightly revised and some appear almost unchanged. The Makah section provides precise numbers for the on-reservation and enrolled populations, yet these figures remain as they were in the 2002 version.

This book’s strength is in providing a concise introduction to each of the area’s Indigenous communities, showing unique features as well as the common threads of history and culture. It is addressed to the non-specialist reader, with a goal of combating romanticized and generalizing stereotypes. It succeeds well in that goal. Those who own the first edition, however, may have little incentive to purchase the second.

Joshua Reid’s The Sea is My Country is a much larger, more scholarly effort, focused on one group, the Makah, around Cape Flattery at the northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula. Reid, an Assistant Professor of History and Director of the Native American Program at University of Massachusetts in Boston, is an enrolled member of the Snohomish Tribe of Puget Sound. He examines Makah history from the first appearance of European and Euro-American fur traders in Makah waters to their on-going struggles to maintain their maritime culture and identity. The approach is that of an academic historian, presenting the results of extensive archival research in considerable detail, ending with ninety pages of endnotes and references.

One theme that runs through this volume is the idea of the Makah “borderlands,” extending from northern Vancouver Island to the Columbia River mouth. Front and back maps show the Makah in this wider world. Networks of regular contact, kin ties, trade, and competing interests linked the various people of the “borderlands.” These networks were in place at the time of first contacts with outsiders in the late eighteenth century. Tatoosh, the powerful chief of the Cape Flattery area, was linked by marriage to Nuu-chah-nulth chiefs Maquinna and Wickaninish, and made regular visits to western Vancouver Island. Networks of communication allowed chiefs to keep tabs on the movement of European ships and to exert some control over the trade. The more powerful of these chiefs were able to dominate their neighbours and control the flow of goods over a wide area. During the maritime fur trade, Tatoosh appears to have dominated the Pacheedaht on Vancouver Island, much as Wickaninish subjugated groups as far south as Barkley Sound. These chiefs were the primary historical actors of the period, controlling and contesting marine and terrestrial spaces and thereby frustrating the imperial agendas of European mariners.

The second pervasive theme involves the management and control of marine space and resources. The Makah name for themselves translates as “The People of the Cape” (“Makah” is mid-nineteenth century term from their Klallam neighbours). Cape Flattery, jutting into the Pacific Ocean at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, provided access to a vast marine space. Fishing, sealing, and whaling, central activities to Makah economy and identity, took them far offshore on a regular basis. Reid takes the title of this book from a Makah leader’s statement at the time of their treaty signing: “I want the sea. That is my country” (126). This concern with marine space runs through Reid’s examination of Makah history.

Well into the nineteenth century, Makah leaders were able to maintain considerable autonomy and prosperity. The Makah sold whale oil to ships passing Cape Flattery and travelled to Fort Victoria to sell furs, fish, and oil. However, the 1846 imposition of the international border disrupted the long-standing network of connections. In 1855, the Makah signed a treaty that established their reservation and led to increased outside control. In addition to fishing rights, the Makah successfully demanded that their whaling and sealing rights be recognized in their treaty, again showing their concern with the sea as the source of their livelihood. Reid documents in considerable detail Makah participation in the fishing and pelagic sealing industries, noting that many prominent Makah individuals acquired their own vessels to compete effectively. Overharvesting by commercial interests, however, depleted whale, seal, and fish populations that the Makah had relied upon for millennia and government regulations increasingly restrained Makah use of traditional resources. By the end of the century the Makah had lost much of their economic independence.

Through ongoing legal and political struggles, the Makah continue to assert claims to traditional marine space and resources. The courts have become the battleground of recent decades, and the Makah have had some success in forcing recognition of treaty rights to marine resources. Their successful whale hunt in 1999, featured at several points in both books under review, was a significant event. Although it drew strong criticism and new legal barriers, it demonstrated Makah determination to reclaim their identity and traditional use of marine space. The Makah have maintained strong social and cultural ties to their Vancouver Island kin, although they now require passports to cross what was once their major transportation corridor. As is evident from both books, studies of the Makah and their neighbours require a broad perspective that encompasses their wide network of connections, despite the imposition of the international border late in their history.

Native Peoples of the Olympic Peninsula: Who We Are (2nd Edition)
Jacliee Wray, editor for Olympic Peninsula Intertribal Cultural Advisory Committee
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015. xxi+201 pp. US$19.95 paper

The Sea is My Country: The Maritime World of the Makahs
Joshua L. Reid
New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015. xvi+400 pp. US$40.00 cloth