Encompassed by the Olympic National Park rainforests, the Quileute tribe's 640-acre reservation lies at the mouth of the Quillayute River in La Push, Washington. The Quileute tribe resides midway between the Makah Nation and the Quinault Indian Nation.
Legend holds that a supernatural transformer fashioned the Quileute from wolves. The tribe's ancestry purportedly reaches back to the Ice Age, which would make them the most ancient inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest. The Quileute dialect was part of the Chimakuan language family tree.
The Quileute hunted sea mammals and fished. They were accomplished whalers and sealers. They built cedar canoes that ranged in capacity from two-man crafts to vessels capable of conveying 6,000 pounds of freight. The Quileute spun long dog hair into warm blankets and wove fine baskets some of them capable of holding water. Interaction with neighboring tribes involved intermarriage, trade, and the potlatch, an important status ceremony that redistributed wealth. On occasion, trespassing triggered warfare or slave raiding.
Extended families of Quileute resided in long winter houses at the mouths of streams. Each structure was occupied by a headman, nobility, commoners, and sometimes slaves taken from neighboring tribes. During the summer, they disbanded into small units, some heading upriver to hunting camps.
Quileutes relied upon, and were answerable to, supernatural powers. Youths searched for their personal guardian power (taxilit) on individual "spirit quests." The first-salmon ceremony ensured the salmon spirit's good will. Other similiar rituals addressed the spirits.
The Quileute people remained isolated from white contact until American captain Robert Gray arrived in May 1792 and took up trading with them. There also are early accounts of shipwrecked Spanish explorers who ended up living with them.
Aggressive, land-hungry settlers began to arrive in the 1830s. The first official contacts with the U.S. government occurred in 1855, when the Quileutes and others negotiated the Quinault River Treaty with representatives of Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens. On January 25, 1856, Chief How-yak and two assistants trekked to Olympia to ink the treaty.
In so doing, they relinquished more than 800,000 acres of old-growth timberland, flush with fish and wildlife, in the Quillayute River basin. In exchange, the treaty provided rights for the Quileute to hunt, fish and gather in the ancestral way on relinquished lands. In addition, they were promised health care, schooling and vocational training. The document also assigned the Quileute people to live on the Quinault Reservation in Taholah, but they refused to move. However, the Quileute territory was so remote that the stipulation was not enforced.
In 1882, the dominant society's bent on acculturation reached the Quileute at the village of La Push in the person of teacher A.W. Smith, who set up a school. Among other things, he proceeded to rename Quileutes from American and Scriptural personages, as well as to anglicize Quileute names.
In February 1889, an executive order of President Benjamin Harrison established a one-mile-square reservation at La Push, which had 252 inhabitants at the time. That year, all 26 houses at La Push were torched by a settler who coveted the land on which they had stood.
An act on March 4, 1904 prompted the commissioner of Indian affairs to declare the Quileutes eligible to receive land allotments on the reservation as stipulated in their 1856 treaty. In 1928, the government completed the allotments by granting each of 165 Quileutes an 80-acre tract on the Quinault Reservation.
In 1936 the tribe adopted a home-rule constitution and bylaws. That was, in part, a response to the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934:
"An Act to conserve and develop Indian lands and resources; to extend to Indians the right to form business and other organizations; to establish a credit system for Indians; to grant certain rights of home rule to Indians; to provide for vocational education for Indians; and for other purposes."
For lands ceded through the Quinault River Treaty, the Quileute and three other tribes had each received $25,000, as stipulated by the treaty. In retrospect, the four tribes believed the amount to be unscrupulously low. In response, the Indian Claims Commission determined the tribes had a combined 688,000 acres as of March 8, 1858. On April 17, 1963, the Quileutes and the neighboring Hohs were compensated in the amount of $112,152.60 for their share.