Steilacoom Tribe History

Steilacoom Territory Map

Steilacoom Territory

Before contact with the Europeans, the Steilacoom Tribe was an independent group inhabiting the Tacoma Basin, which is southwest of what is now known as the city of Tacoma. The Tacoma Basin contains two major waterways: Chambers Creek (or the Steilacoom River) and the Segwallitchu River. Unlike their closely related neighbors, the Puyallup and Nisqually Tribes, the Steilacoom did not have a glacier fed river. The principal feature of the Steilacoom Territory was a group of spirit inhabited lakes. 

There were approximately 600 Steilacoom Indians living in five bands within the drainage basin. The Steilacoom band resided in six sites on Chambers Creek; the Sastuck band resided in three sites on Clover Creek; the Spanaway band resided at Spanaway Lake; the Tlithlow band resided on Murray Creek; and the Segwallitchu resided in two sites on the Segwallitchu River.

Steilacoom   *   Sastuck   *   Spanaway   *   Tlithlow   *   Segqallitchew

Steilacoom Name

The Steilacoom speak a sub-dialect of the Puget Sound Salish language known as Whulshootseed (sometimes spelled "Lushootseed"). Tribal names were words that literally translated to mean "people" much as someone may describe themselves as, "British or Mexican" to mean they are people from that territory. The word Steilacoom is an anglicization of the Whulshootseed word č'tilqwəbš, which is pronounced CH'tilQWubSH. 

A prominent feature on the hills and plains of the Steilacoom Territory was a pink flower known as "Indian Pink" (Lythophragma Parviflorum). This pink flower was very well-known to reside in the main area of our village. Therefore, among the Puget Sound Tribes, the name "Steilacoom" was taken to mean, "the people of the Indian Pink area." Today the Steilacoom Flower is also known as the smallflower fringecup or small-flowered woodland star.

Steilacoom Flower. Image Credit: Rod Gilbert

No Reservation for the Steilacoom Tribe

The Steilacoom were one of the most affected off all western Washington Tribes during early white settlement. Peter Puget arrived in our territory in 1792, for the first recorded tour by Europeans of southern Puget Sound. The first trading post north of the Columbia River was established in our territory by English businessmen. Also located within our territory were the first United States Army Fort, the first protestant church, the first jail, the first public lending library and the first incorporated community in Washington. There was much hope by the early settlers that the Town of Steilacoom would become the next town to bustle with business and trade, much like San Francisco.

When the treaty negotiators arrived in our area, they were advised by the Indian Office in Washington DC not to place Reservations in areas that were expected to have high concentrations of settlers. The perception held by Governor Stevens and treaty drafter George Gibbs was that the town of Steilacoom would continue to be a main non-Indian population center in Western Washington. So, while the Steilacoom Tribe signed the Medicine Creek Treaty in 1854, the treaty did not provide them with a separate reservation. Instead they were directed to move onto reservations that were established for their neighbors, the Puyallup, Nisqually, and Squaxin.

Steilacoom John & Annie. Image from the UW Libraries of Digital Collection. "Steilacoom John was a leader of the Steilacoom Tribe who lived in the area around Chambers Creek and the territory surrounding Fort Steilacoom, WA. John was a son of Ce-col-quin, a signer of the 1854 Medicine Creek Treaty.. He led an extended family that camped at McNeil Island each summer. In this photo, John and his wife Annie are seated in front of their home. The stereographic image was part of a series made by J.A. Blosser, illustrating Pacific Northwest scenes."

In 1856, along with other signers of the Medicine Creek Treaty, the Steilacoom met with Governor Stevens to voice their grievances concerning the treaty. Sam Young, who was the chief of the Steilacoom Tribe at that time, summed up the feelings of many tribal citizens in discussing the lack of a separate reservation:

"Now what I want to say is this. My home is Shilacum (Steilacoom) Creek and there is where I want to live and die. I wish to tell the Governor that every Indian loves his native land best. Every Indian loves his own people best."

Sam Young, Chief of the Steilacoom Tribe; Fox Island Council, August 4, 1856 

Following the signing of the Medicine Creek Treaty, some Steilacoom did choose to move onto a number of reservations, including Puyallup, Nisqually, Skokomish and Tulalip. However, Sam Young and many others refused to move away from their aboriginal homeland. These are the ancestors of the modern-day Steilacoom Tribe.

After The Treaty

Even though the Steilacoom Tribe signed a ratified treaty with the United States and has maintained an unbroken line of political leadership, the Tribe today is not recognized by the federal government. However, we were dealt with as a Tribe by the Bureau of Indian Affairs on an 'on-again, off-again' basis from the 1910s through the 1960s. Local, County, State and other Federal agencies do recognize the Steilacoom Tribe today.

We have continued to survive by means of a mixture of traditional activities and our ability to use traditional skills outside of our own culture. Although we did not receive a reservation, we continue to thrive today by maintaining our social and political organization. Citizens of the Tribe are united by a common bond: the quest to hold onto our Steilacoom Indian heritage, to preserve and protect our identity as a distinct and viable Indian Tribe, and to regain rights and privileges guaranteed by the Medicine Creek Treaty. Unlike some other treaty signing Tribes, we have had to maintain our identity without the benefit of a land base and without federal resources.

Puget Sound Salish Indians in a canoe, off Steilacoom, WA, 1897. Image credit: UW Libraries Digital Collection.

There have been hard times, but the continuation of a distinct Steilacoom Tribal identity has never been in doubt. It is something that will always survive. A simple paragraph written by an Oregon resident in support of Federal Recognition provides a positive note for all people to live by. He said, "No person, agency, or government has the right to deprive a people of their heritage, and all people have a natural right to their customs, culture and ancestry."

Since the time of the Medicine Creek Treaty, the Steilacoom Tribe has continued to maintain an unbroken line of leadership, even without a reservation. Traditionally each Steilacoom Band would have a headman. The position was hereditary, being passed from father to son. Special circumstances would require the ruling family to identify another successor. Whomever the family selected was subject to the approval of the band in total. Subchiefs, generally brothers or cousins of the headman, would aid the headman in accomplishing organizational tasks. While there was no overall chief of the entire tribe, the headman of the main village on Chambers Creek generally had more prestige and influence than the others.  

You can learn about our unbroken line of Tribal Leadership by clicking here.

Steilacoom Tribal Meeting being held at the Town Hall in Steilacoom, WA. ca. 1980s.

Survival of Our People

In 1974, under the leadership of Chairman Lewis Leyton and four Tribal Council members, the Steilacoom Indian Tribe took ownership of our non-profit corporation. Our Council began by conducting business out of the home of Joan, a descendant of Betsy LaTour. Joan was voted in as Tribal Chairperson in 1975. During the 1980s Joan operated a second hand shop and boutique on Mountain Hwy in Spanaway, WA. At that time the Steilacoom Tribal offices were housed within the boutique. There was an annual Country Market Yard Sale held there, where people could set-up shop and sell items in the front yard of our boutique. Later, the Town of Steilacoom made it possible for the Steilacoom Tribal Council to conduct meetings in the Steilacoom Town Hall. We continued to operate in this way until the purchase of our Tribal Cultural Center and Museum in 1987.

Learn about our Tribal Cultural Center & Museum by clicking here.

Photo of former Tribal Chairwoman Joan (center, holding her granddaughter, Lacie) . On her left: daughter-in-law Shannan and son Danny (current Tribal Chairman and his wife). On her right: son-in-law Tom, daughter Catherine. Photo from 1981.

On January 21, 2000 we were told by the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) that we are extinct. Joan Ortez, the Tribal Chairwoman at the time, is quoted as saying, "It's a never-ending story for us. In 1972 we wrote to the president but got no answer." Her grandmother, Hotesa, was a full-blood Steilacoom Indian born at the Hudson Bay Co. trading post in Dupont, Fort Nisqually. "She always said she married my grandfather because he wanted a young, strong Indian maiden to raise a lot of sons and help him run his ranch." Hotesa would smoke and dry salmon, and cook traditional foods such as clams in baskets heated with hot rocks. At the time, many of the Steilacoom People were living in what later became the North Fort Lewis area, in little shacks in the berry fields of Puyallup or the hops fields around Roy. Traveling with her Uncle Lou, Joan remembers visiting the Indian people on Squaxin Island. "We'd eat deer, clams and salmon with them. We'd dig clams on the beach." 

Joan learned Tribal political activism at her mother's knee. Her mother served on the Steilacoom Tribal Council for 25 years, until her death in 1977. She is quoted as saying, "[My mother] talked about holding the Tribe together, the survival of the Tribe." Joan is also quoted as discussing why that has been so difficult. "There's a lot of [People] out there that know they're Steilacoom, but don't really participate in what the Tribe offers. In order for them to survive, they've had to be like their neighbor and work in the labor force. But behind closed doors, a lot of them are doing traditional things."