Puyallup Tribe: The Story of Our People
puyaləpabš: syəcəb ʔə tiił ʔiišədčəł
In our Lushootseed language, we are known as the puyaləpabš. The literal translation of this word means “people from the bend at the bottom of the river.” This refers to the many dispersed villages that spanned outward from the mouth of the Puyallup River, near the present-day site of the Tacoma Dome. The name spuyaləpabš also became associated with our people’s welcoming and generous behavior. Over time the meaning of spuyaləpabš, or Puyallup, has taken on this association.
We are one of the many Lushootseed-speaking peoples of the northwest. Prior to European settlement, our people lived in villages from the foothills of təqʷuʔmaʔ/təqʷuʔbəd along the rivers, creeks, and prairies to the shores and islands of the Puget Sound.
Change came rapidly to our community. Captain Vancouver sailed through the area in 1792. Traveling with him was Lt. Peter Puget, who named many of the local sites—most of which were already named in our own language. Our mountain, təqʷuʔmaʔ/təqʷuʔbəd, for example, was renamed after a Rear Admiral in the British Royal Navy. It’s important to note that there were and are many variations of names for the Mountain. We most often refer to her today as təqʷuʔmaʔ/təqʷuʔbəd, though we recognize and respect the many names our tribal relatives have given her throughout history.
In 1833, the Hudson’s Bay Company sent a party to the Puget Sound to pick a site for a trading post, and Washington became a territory of the United States in 1853. Our people extended their hands in friendship and assisted many who were seeking refuge and a better life in the West. Soon, however, the United States Government encouraged non-Native settlement of our lands and the new settlers quickly began crowding us out.
On December 24, 1854, our Puyallup people, along with neighboring tribes and bands, were invited by representatives of the US Government to participate in a potlatch at šxʷnanəm (Shwh-nah-num), or Medicine Creek. Today it is also known as McAllister Creek, named after a white pioneer who settled the area. To their surprise, they were met with official documents asking them to sign away their lands. After three days of poorly communicated negotiations, a few of the tribal representatives, not speaking or writing English, signed their X’s on the Medicine Creek Treaty. To this day it is believed that many of those X’s were forced, if not forged.
With this, three reservations were created: one at Puyallup, one at Nisqually, and one on Squaxin Island. Not only were the original reservations too small to comfortably fit all of our people, but they were also poorly located, away from the resources that sustained us. As a result of this miscommunication and abuse of power, our people went to war.
The Treaty Wars, commonly referred to as the Indian Wars, took place between 1855-1856. During these wars, many battles took place from the South Sound to Seattle, and even east into Yakama territory. While each tribe had their own experiences, their motivations for fighting were all the same–our people were being pushed out, abused, and even murdered at the hands of the new settlers. During these times many of the Washington Territory tribes came together in solidarity.
In late August of 1856, through their representative Isaac Stevens, the U.S. Government renegotiated the treaty at what became known as the Fox Island Council. These renegotiations were led by the Puyallup Chief Squatahan and led to the expansion or relocation of the Puyallup, Nisqually, and Squaxin Island reservations. Further, the Muckleshoot Reservation was also formed.
While these plots of land were set aside for the tribes, our people continued to live both on and off our reservation. Even today the tribes fight for our rights to exist throughout our traditional homelands.
Over the past 160 years, the Puyallup Tribe has become a recognizable force in the fight for tribal rights. Our elders valiantly fought for tribal fishing rights, eventually leading to the Boldt Decision in 1974. We’ve also become a political force, particularly since the 1990 Land Claims Settlement between the Tribe, local governments, Washington State, and the US Government.