Two versions have been put forth to define the name Nooksack. One is that it means mountain men, the name given by Indians on the coast to this Salish tribe. The other version is that the tribe is named after noot-sa-ack, the bracken ferns that were one of their dietary staples. In either case, the Nooksack are a Native American tribe in Whatcom County in the northwest corner of Washington State.
The tribe has a reservation 17 miles east of Bellingham, centered at the small town of Deming. Like most Northwest Coast indigenous peoples, the pre-contact Nooksack subsisted on fishing, hunting, gathering and trading.
For millennia before trappers, traders, lumbermen, gold seekers and homesteaders came to the Nooksack River valley, the Nooksack people resided in numerous villages at the banks of the Nooksack and Sumas. The earliest Nooksack scooped out semi-subterranean dwellings of up to a dozen feet deep, then capped them with pitched bark roofs. Subsequent generations constructed aboveground longhouses of cedar boards.
Their fishing grounds extended from today's Bellingham Bay to British Columbia. They used nets and fish traps in the rivers to harvest various species of salmon. During the fish runs in the fall and spring, a number of families typically shared a smokehouse on the riverbanks next to the fish traps. They cleaned, hung up to dry, and smoked numerous salmon. The Nooksack also dug up clams, gathered meadow berries, stalked mountain goats for food and skins, and grew wild carrots (sbugmack).* However, the majority of their diet consisted of fish, roots and ferns. The Nooksack reverenced the earth and its bounty in religious ceremonies.
The expansion of a family's complex of kinship, ceremonial and trading ties was closely connected to its status and affluence within the Nooksack social structure. The Nooksack language, which belonged to the Salishan family of languages, was predominant in much of the upper Fraser River Valley in British Columbia.** They spoke the same dialect as the Squawmish from whom, it is believed, they parted ways.
On their far-ranging trading trips, Nooksack paddlers adroitly navigated the streams in shovel-nosed canoes crafted from Western red cedar. Their usual trading allies were the Chilliwack, Matsqua, and Sumas tribes in British Columbia. On a smaller scale, they bartered with coastal Lummis, Semiahmoos, and Skagit Valley clans.
In 1790, the Spanish claimed the region, then over the following several decades, the Northwest fell into the hands of the Russians, English, and Americans. Explorers, fur trappers and traders were the first to appear, and the Hudson's Bay Company became a trading presence from 1825 to 1846. Like virtually all of the indigenous cultures in the Northwest and elsewhere, contact with Euro-Americans profoundly altered the Nooksack way of life predominantly for the worse.
In 1860, reports of gold prompted a party of white explorers to investigate the area east of Whatcom County, up to the Nooksack River's middle fork headwaters. They made their way through the densely treed South Fork valley before prospecting at the north and middle fork confluence. In following years, other gold seekers and early explorers pushed into the county's hills and valleys, followed by homesteaders. The wilderness and its original inhabitants yielded to the hegemonic culture that staked claims and cleared the land. Sawmills became commonplace.
The Nooksack never signed a treaty with the U.S. that would have given them a reservation, because they had been overlooked. Thus they were vulnerable with no treaty to offer them any protection and lost their lands to white settlers. It was not until 1958 that, though landless, the Nooksacks won compensation for the loss of their lands, whose value was pegged at 1858 dollars. In 1873, a U.S. government attempt was made to relegate the Nooksack to the Lummi reservation. However, the Nooksack returned to their upriver sites because they felt no close affinity with the Lummi.
At the turn of the 20th century, Nooksack and other native children were taken from their homes by Bureau of Indian Affairs officials to attend boarding schools, in order to assimilate them into the wider society. Nearly a century later, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Gover apologized for the manner in which those schools were conducted:
"This agency forbade the speaking of Indian languages, prohibited the conduct of traditional religious activities, outlawed traditional government, and made Indian people ashamed of who they were. Worst of all, the Bureau of Indian Affairs committed these acts against the children entrusted to its boarding schools, brutalizing them emotionally, psychologically and spiritually."
In the mid-1930s, the Nooksack tribe voted to accept the provisions of the Indian Reorganization Act (1934), which had secured new rights for Native Americans, and began to work on a tribal constitution. Since they lacked a land base, they were denied federal recognition as a tribe. In 1971, however, the Nooksack Tribe won full federal recognition, and a reservation was founded on one acre at Deming. Since then, the tribe's holdings have expanded to 2,500 acres, which include 65 acres of trust land.
* The Nooksack also were the first Native Americans in the region to grow white potatoes, a skill they acquired from British Columbia Hudson Bay Company employees.
**The Nooksack's language was all but extinct by the 1980s, when only a few elders spoke it. The tribe has since established a "language reclamation" project.
See Indian Wars Time Table .
See also Native Americans Cultural Regions map .