Brandon Reynon knows what it’s like to have someone else tell your story.
Connie McCloud knows what it’s like to be told you don’t even have a story.
Reynon and McCloud are members of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians.
And they want to tell their story.
“The Puyallup People: First on the Waterway” is a new and permanent exhibit at the Foss Waterway Seaport.
It’s an important story to tell, Seaport executive director Wesley Wenhardt said. The Puyallups were here long before white people arrived. The waterways were their highways and food sources.
The Seaport wanted to add the tribe’s history and culture to the body of maritime culture already on display at the museum.
“We quickly determined, that if we were going to do this, that we wanted to work with the tribe,” said guest curator Chris Erlich.
“Far be it from us to say, this is what we think your story is,” Wenhardt said. “It’s been a very consultative process.”
Reynon, of the tribe’s cultural resources department, said they were thrilled to have the opportunity. Most importantly, they knew the show would be accurately told with their input.
“The historic preservation department of the Puyallup Tribe has gone over sentence, viewed every piece of text, every photograph, every graphic,” Reynon said.
For McCloud, the show is a testament to the tribe’s past and its future.
“We are not people in a history book. We are alive and well. Our culture is not going anywhere,” McCloud said. “This is a story about perseverance, toughness, endurance. There’s a bright future ahead of us.”
“Tacoma didn’t begin with Job Carr,” Reynon said. “Tacoma began with a very generous and welcoming people.”
In 1864, Carr was the first permanent white settler in Tacoma, building a log cabin in today’s Old Town Tacoma. The welcoming people Reynon is referring to are his own ancestors.
“Job Carr would have died his first winter if it wasn’t for the Puyallups,” he said. “He was miserable, he was not going to make it.”
“Puyallup” has two meanings. It literally means winding river but, referring to the tribe, means generous people.
The word has long confounded out-of-state visitors with its pronunciation.
But it’s a watered down version of the original word, spuyaləpabš. That’s pronounced spoy-UH-la-putch.
Though the Puyallups, like other North American natives, did not have a written language, the tribe, working with linguists, has created an alphabet.
“We’ve developed a way of turning our traditionally oral language into written so we can revive it,” Reynon said.
Previous to the white man’s arrival, Puyallups had the entire Sound to themselves.
A map of Puget Sound’s shoreline in the exhibit shows the original Puyallup names.
“In English, we name after people. (Puyallups) named after descriptions of the land,” Reynon said.
Downtown Tacoma was once called “Place of the tide.” “Pull a canoe over” is the land bridge that connects Maury and Vashon Islands. The Narrows was called “Place of Swift Water.”
Plans call for adding recordings of the place names spoken in the Puyallup language, Erlich said.
Although pre-first contact Puyallups didn’t know of the Gregorian calendar they did have terms for seasons that roughly paralleled the 12 months.
A circular display matches those seasons with months. “Sheath Your Paddles” is the term for December. March is “Gusts of Blowing Wind” and June is salmonberry season.
A push of a button plays recordings of native speakers reciting the various seasons.
Carr would be the first of an ever growing presence of non-natives in the 1800s.
“As more non-natives came into the region we were quickly pushed out of our homes,” Reynon said. “We were placed in schools and our land was taken from us in just a few years.”
Following the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854, the western influence on the Puyallups became much stronger.
“I would say it becomes oppressive,” Erlich said. “There were all kinds of efforts to get the Puyallups off their lands and to marginalize them.”
“Kids were literally ripped out of their home and not allowed to speak Puyallup, they had to speak English,” Reynon said. “And if you didn’t speak English you were beaten until you did.”
Photos show Puyallups living in pioneer style homes. They were cut off from their traditional fishing and hunting grounds.
“Now we had to have an income because we lost our lands,” Reynon said.
The things they used to procure just by working for them now needed to be purchased with money.
“It’s like saying, you live in this gated community but you can’t go to Safeway,” Reynon said.
It took a century but Puyallups, along with other tribes, began to turn the tide back in the 1960s.
The American Indian Movement, influenced by the 1960s civil rights movement, sought to restore treaty rights, among other goals, to natives around the nation.
But the Puyallups had been pushing back long before AIM became a household word.
The Medicine Creek Treaty, a copy of which is on display, guaranteed fishing rights. But when the Puyallups tried to assert those rights they were met with resistance.
“We’re being arrested for obeying the law,” Reynon said.
“We’re not talking 1890s, 1855. We’re talking 1970,” McCloud said.
A photo shows tribal leader Robert Satiacum fishing with actor Marlon Brando in 1964. Brando made headlines for getting arrested that day.
In 1974, what became known as the Boldt Decision gave certain tribes 50 percent of the salmon harvest in western Washington. The monumental move shocked and angered non-Indian fishermen.
“But the Boldt decision wouldn’t have happened if our people hadn’t stood up and said, ‘We have a right to be here. You can’t stop us,’ ” McCloud said.
The tribe turned to more forceful means when armed Puyallups took over the former Cushman Hospital in 1976. The state had taken control of the building even though it was on reservation land.
Puyallups considered it their property though it had bad memories associated with it. It had served as a forced Indian boarding school, a tuberculosis hospital and a juvenile prison.
In the 1980s, McCloud was on the tribal council when the Puyallups filed claims to get its land back.
A Port of Tacoma official, McCloud said, told her that the Puyallup people no longer existed.
“I can’t repeat that to my children,” McCloud recalled thinking. “Those words won’t come out of my mouth.”
In 1990, the Puyallup Land Claims Settlement created much of the Puyallup’s current land footprint. It also guaranteed economic and social aid.
“What people see today,” Reynon said.
Buoyed by restored treaty rights and economic engines — gaming being a major driver — the Puyallups have gone from simply surviving to thriving.
The tribe’s future is in its youth, Reynon said.
“We are adapting, we are going to college and learning skills that help us in modern society,” he said. “The youth are amazing. They have that balance of having the modern technology and opportunities but they are able to focus on and track their roots — what makes them native, what makes them Puyallup.”
Youth are eager to serve in their native community as well as the non-native community, Reynon said.
Many of the youth will be involved in this summer’s canoe journey. The Puyallups are the host tribe for the annual event which will conclude on the banks of Commencement Bay. More than 100 canoes and some 10,000 people are expected for the Power Paddle to Puyallup July 28-August 4, McCloud said.
A Puyallup canoe is on display in the show. Children — or adults — can practice loading a smaller version. It takes some skill to keep it from tipping over.
s“The Puyallup People: First on the Waterway”
Where: Foss Waterway Seaport, 705 Dock Street, Tacoma
Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday
Admission: $10 adults, $8 children, students, military, seniors
Information: 253-272-2750, fosswaterwayseaport.org