Known evocatively as the "People of the Water," members of the modern Squaxin Island Tribe reside at seven inlets of southern Puget Sound in Washington. The Squaxin Island Reservation takes up the better part of an island north of Olympia. The tribal headquarters and trade center are located in Kamilche at Little Skookum Inlet, six miles south of Shelton in Mason County.
Squaxin Island is not far from the entrances to the seven inlets. The island a former state park is uninhabited, but as a part of the reservation today, the tribe retains sole rights to it for recreational activities. The place is regarded as the focal point of their tribal life.
The Squaxin Island tribe's ancestors were water-oriented people who flourished along the sound's shores for unrecorded millennia. They subsisted on a cornucopia of fish, berries, roots such as camas, and the woods. Their traditions were organically tied to the generous environment. Salmon and other foods from the rivers and other waters were central to their diet and spiritual rituals. The creatures that sustained them embodied more than nourishment; they provided spiritual sustenance as well. Parts of the western red cedar were rendered into a variety of such products as clothing, rope, intricate baskets and other containers, eating utensils, furnishings and artistic wood carvings.
Squaxin society was three-tiered, comprising (inherited) nobility, middle, and slave classes. One's accumulated wealth served as the criterion of leadership. The potlatch, a lavish social giveaway ceremony, was traditionally held by a host to claim or maintain his place in society. The Squaxin were closely linked to the Nisqually people by similar customs, family connections and native tongue. The Squaxin traditional language was Lushootseed, a Salish variant.
Like numerous first peoples before them, Northwest natives experienced the horrendous effects of the westward movement of thousands of land-hungry white homesteaders and others bent on beginning a new life. In 1854, the seven Squaxin bands, along with other southern Puget Sound tribes, took part in a council with the U.S. Government, in which they negotiated the Medicine Creek Treaty. The nearby Nisqually and Puyallup tribes also inked the document. The negotiations were conducted in Chinook jargon, a paltry trading argot that failed to get across to the Indians the enormity and intricacy of the issues. Thousands of square miles of land were relinquished to the federal government, but tiny Squaxin Island four and a half miles long and a half mile wide was reserved for the Squaxin. When the native signatories became fully cognizant of the treaty's implications, they fought to win back a more livable homeland in the Indian War of 1856-57. During the war, the Squaxin were restricted to their island reservation.
Following the conflict, the Squaxin gradually began to depart the island to live near their ancestral villages. The island population had dwindled to 50 by 1862 and by 1959 four permanent residents lived there.
The Squaxin Island Tribe numbered among the first 30 Indian nations in the country to enroll in the federal government's Self Governance Demonstration Project, authorized by Congress in 1988. Currently the tribe sets its own goals and budgets using funds that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) formerly administered.
In November 2002, the Squaxin Island Tribe opened the Home of Sacred Belongings, as well as a museum library and research center, southeast of Kamilche. In 2004, the tribe constructed a tribal center adjacent to the museum. Their shared language, Lushootseed, is now taught in the tribes learning center.