Tulalip Tribes

  • By Margaret Riddle
  • Posted 11/27/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8852

The Tulalip Tribes is a federally recognized Indian tribe located on the Tulalip Reservation north of Everett and west of Marysville. Reservation boundaries set by the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855 gave a permanent home to the Snohomish, Snoqualmie, Skykomish, Stillaguamish, and related tribes  “Dxwlilep,” the Coast Salish word, means small-mouthed bay. In 1857 Roman Catholic missionary Eugene Casimir Chirouse (1821-1892) established St. Anne’s Mission and boys’ school at Tulalip and was joined by the Sisters of Providence who added a girls’ school in 1868.  A government-run Indian boarding school followed from 1900 to its closure in 1932. Since 1936 the Tulalip Tribes has had its own tribal council and is currently self governing.  Historically gaining sustenance from fishing, the Tulalips have profited most in recent years from their success in real estate and the casino business, which provide jobs primarily for tribal members. Today the Tulalip Reservation has a population of 9,000 (3,600 tribal members) and a land base of 22,086 acres.

Early Village Sites

Early explorers and tribal elders left accounts of Indian villages in the Puget Sound region. These were located along the rivers and bays, the connecting waterways for food, culture, and trade. The Snohomish and related tribes mainly inhabited land near what became the Tulalip Reservation. In the mid 1800s -- prior to the Point Elliott Treaty -- the largest and most important Snohomish village was Hibulb or Hebolb (hee-BOH-luhb) located on the northwestern tip of present-day Everett, on Port Gardner Bay near the mouth of the Snohomish River.  Here was a protective palisade surrounded four cedar-plank longhouses, each 100 feet x 40 feet in size, and a large potlatch house.

Other Snohomish villages were located as far north as what is now Warm Beach, west to Camano Island, Hat Island, and Whidbey Island, and inland following river routes.  Villages included an unnamed site south of the mouth of the Stillagumish River at Warm Beach;  twTOE-hob near Warm Beach;  k’WHABS on the shoreline northwest of Tulalip Bay at SPEE-bee-dah; WHESH-ud on Camano Head; TSEHT-skluhs at Sandy Point, Whidbey Island near present-day Langley; D’GWAD’wk, east side of Cultus Bay on Whidbey Island; tsuht-TSAHL-ee on the northwest end of Hat Island; tw’LAY-lup at Tulalip Bay; ts’LAHKS at Priest Point;  kwul-KWUL-oo between Priest Point and Quilceda Creek, and kwil-SEE-duh at the mouth of Quilceda Creek. 

River locations were at sbah-DAHLH, where Snohomish is today; an unnamed site north of sbah-DAHL;  tb’TSAH at Machias; an unnamed  site at today’s Cathcart;  TAH’kw-tuh-tsid, southwest of Monroe and suh-TUH-kahd, downstream from TAH’kw-tuh-tsid.

A village on Camano Island was said to have existed before the great slide of 1825, when a large piece of the southern tip of Camano slid into Possession Sound. A resultant tidal wave from the slide drowned many on nearby Hat Island.  After that Indians used the site only for seasonal clamming.

D’GWAD’wk was reported to have been a substantial village in the early 1800s. This Whidbey Island site at Cultus Bay had a potlatch house and five longhouses.  Many of today’s Tulalip tribal members had families who once lived on Whidbey Island. 

Treaty Promises Delayed

Although the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855 established the Tulalip Agency and its reservations at Tulalip, Lummi, Swinomish, and Port Madison, government treaty promises were years in coming. Snohomish sub-Chief Bonaparte expressed frustration with the slowness of government aid.  At 22,000 acres, Tulalip was the largest reservation and served as the regional Indian Agency center with a promised agricultural and industrial Indian school. 

While the government delayed, most Snohomish natives moved to Tulalip where some native already lived. The treaty finally was ratified in 1859, but the tribes had to wait two more years for any government support due to confusion over policy and corruption within the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

The Tulalip Bay Settlement 

Early settlers John Gould (1823-1900), Jehial Hall, Charles C. Phillips (1824-1867), Hudson’s Bay trapper Peter Goutre (1804-1875), and Seattle pioneer Dr. Wesley Cherry (?-1854) built a small water-powered sawmill at Tulalip Bay in 1853. Two years later Tulalip Reservation boundaries included this mill site and the federal government asked tenants to move. Tulalip Tribes began operating the sawmill.      

The first missionaries to settle in the Snohomish River area were Father Eugene Casimir Chirouse (1821-1892), Oblates of Mary Immaculate, (OMI), assisted by Father Darieu (OMI).  Chirouse was first assigned in the Cayuse area but was transferred to Olympia following an Indian uprising. Chirouse was next sent to establish a mission at Tulalip. 

He and Father Darieu arrived in 1857, opening a mission and boys’ school at Quil Ceda, at the mouth of Ebey Slough. St. Anne’s Mission and school was moved to Priest Point (named for Chirouse) and then to its final location at Tulalip Bay where parishioners built a log church and school. During the smallpox epidemic of 1862, Chirouse reported vaccinating 400 Indians at Tulalip. Only three died, a small number compared to the many deaths at nearby Indian villages. 

In 1868 Sisters of Providence joined Chirouse at St. Anne’s, opening a school for girls, Providence of Our Lady of Seven Dolors. A year later the government appropriated money to support the school, making St. Anne’s Mission the United States’ first Indian School.  In 1902 the Mission burned to the ground. Two years later a new St. Anne’s Mission church (currently on the National Register of Historic Places) took its place at the same location, opening January 23, 1905.

Tribal members recall Father Chirouse as a gentle and steady presence.  He learned the Lushootseed dialect spoken at Tulalip and often served as arbiter and translator.

Indian Boarding School

By the early 1900s the Bureau of Indian Affairs sought to separate church affiliations with schools on Indian reservations. In 1901 the government began operating the school at Tulalip, building a new structure which served also as the regional Indian Agency headquarters. The school was planned to accommodate a thousand students, serving all Indians west of the Cascades. In reality it could only house 75.  There were separate dormitories for boys and girls. While girls learned cooking, sewing, and housekeeping, boys were taught vocational trades. Some classes were taught using the Montessori method.

In an attempt to suppress indigenous culture, the government operated the school in military style and the experience for Tulalips was brutal.  Students were subjected to daily marches and were punished for speaking their native language and practicing native customs. Today the Tulalip Tribes offer group sessions to former students who, as seniors, are still coping with the scars received from their boarding school days.

The school officially closed in 1932, its principal buildings torn down, and students absorbed into the Marysville school system. Tulalip Elementary located on the Tulalip Reservation, is part of Marysville schools and students maintain a website of Tulalip Indian traditions, language, and stories.

Tulalip’s Shaker Church

Tulalips also had an Indian Shaker church. Unrelated to the better-known Protestant sect of the same name, this was a messianic, healing religion founded in 1881 in the Pacific Northwest. A mix of Catholicism, Protestantism, and native ritual, its followers suffered years of persecution before being allowed to practice their beliefs openly.  Tulalip’s Shaker Church was built in 1924 and over the years members have fed and clothed the poor and kept its services open to all. Placed on the National Register in the 1970s, the original church structure survived until 2008 when members decided it was too deteriorated to use. 

The Tulalip Tribes consider this church part of their heritage and, in that spirit, gave money to construct a new church and banquet hall designed in the original style.   Church members burned the old building in a ceremony and saved its ashes. Four hundred people -- many were Indians Shakers from all over the region -- attended the church opening on a rainy day on November 7, 2008.    

Cedar and Salmon

The forests that attracted white settlers to the Pacific Northwest for their economic potential had great cultural significance to regional native tribes. Thuja plicata, the Western Red Cedar, was of great importance, used sparingly for houses, canoes, clothing, and art.  And for thousands of years these natives had a highly developed fishing culture. Their art and stories centered around woods and water and the creatures who inhabited those places.  

Rivers and bays gave abundant food and connected them to trading opportunities as far north as the Fraser River. Fish included five kinds of salmon (spring, humpback, silver, dog, and sockeye) as well as steelhead, flounder, trout, rock, and cod. The shoreline offered clams, oysters, and crabs. Inland Indians hunted for deer and elk and collected many varieties of berries, ferns, and roots. Cattails were especially important for weaving mats that covered summer dwellings.

While much of the speechmaking was lost in translation on Treaty Day 1855, one thing the Indians understood was that they could continue to fish, hunt, and trade in their traditional places. Yet these treaty promises would be contested for decades.  In 1915 a Tulalip Indian was jailed for hunting on questionable reservation land. Tulalip Indian agent Charles Buchanan wrote to the Washington State Legislature reminding them of tribal treaty rights.

Fishing and Fishing Rights

Escalating development with its logging, dredging, dams, sewage systems, and industrial and residential building destroyed both fish and wildlife habitat. There also was money to be made by incoming settlers in commercial fishing and both Scandinavian and Croatian immigrants to Puget Sound found good opportunities drawing on their own fishing traditions. In 1930 fish ladders were installed on state dams, to allow fish to navigate dams. 

Several test cases addressed the state’s Indian fishing rights, specifically a 1968 Supreme Court ruling, Puyallup Tribes v. Washington Department of Game, allowing the state to regulate Indian fishing for conservation purposes; a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling giving Indians the right to fish steelhead, and the famous 1974  U.S. v. Washington State ruling -- the Boldt Decision -- which upheld Washington Indian Tribal rights to co-manage fishing resources and allocate to tribal members 50 percent of the fish harvested. 

Fishing provided good seasonal money for the Tulalips until the mid 1970s when fish populations were seriously dwindling and tribes competed with large commercial fishing operations. Tulalip tribal member Bernie Kai-Kai Gobin set up a small backyard fish hatchery on the reservation, making the Tulalips one of the first Indian tribes to own and operate a hatchery. The Bernie Kai-Kai Gobin Fish Hatchery is now a large and significant tribal-run enterprise, releasing three species of salmon in terminal area fisheries on and near the Tulalip Reservation as well as to other commercial and sport fisheries in Washington and British Columbia.

Today the adjudicated "usual and accustomed" fishing area of the Tulalip Tribes extends from the Canadian border 120 miles south to the northern end of Vashon Island. Tulalips’ Natural Resources Department oversees an aggressive fishing management program. Its long-term vision is restoration of wild salmon production to levels that will support ceremonial, subsistence, and commercial fishing without overharvesting wild salmon. The Tulalip Tribes work to protect and perpetuate the resources their people have depended on for thousands of years. 

Tulalip Language and Culture

The damage inflicted upon the region’s native culture both by disease and development cannot be overstated. Possibly the tribes that made up Tulalip Tribes once had high decorative art, but if they did, this work has not survived. What has survived are examples of their applied arts such as tools, baskets, clothing, and canoes, and oral tradition.

Tulalip Tribes have been working to collect and preserve tribal stories and customs. A major culture bearer was William Shelton (1868-1938). Part Snohomish and part Skay-whah-mish, Puyallup, and Wenatchee, Shelton was raised on the Tulalip Reservation by parents who taught him tribal stories and language. He enrolled himself in the Indian Boarding School at age 17 in order to learn “white people’s education” (Everett Daily Herald, January 2, 1914). He continued there until 21 years of age and gained the respect of government agents at Tulalip, who made him sawyer in the Tulalip Mill. There he learned carpentry and millwright skills.

William Shelton interviewed tribal elders and collected their stories. He carved a story pole, each figure representing a tale told by informants. Shelton built several poles, one placed in Everett in the 1920s. He spent his life attempting to bridge the two cultures that he loved and he was a key figure in preservation of Tulalip Tribal culture. Shelton’s daughter Harriette Shelton Dover Williams (?-1991) continued her father’s work and was important in reviving the Tribes’ First Salmon Ceremony in 1979, which is once again an annual celebration. Scholar Lawrence Rygg interviewed Harriette in the 1970s and his manuscript carries her story. But Harriette wrote her own version which the University of Washington Press is currently (2008) considering for publication. 

Over the years members of the Tulalip Tribes have been interviewed by researchers and scholars whose work has furthered cultural preservation. But the ongoing daily contributions have come from tribal members such as Communications Director Lita Sheldon and  See-Yaht-Sub newspaper editor and historian Sherrill Williams Guydelkon (1946-2008) who have collected and shared the life stories of many tribal elders.  Toby Langdon and the Tulalip Tribes Cultural Resources Department (Hank Gobin, Director) have contributed substantially to preservation of the Lushootseed dialect which is now taught in classes and on YouTube

Storytellers Vi Hilbert and Johnny Moses have family roots with tribes at Tulalip and share their cultural stories. The Tulalip Tribes joined other Indians in the region in celebrating the Washington State Centennial in 1989 with Paddle to Seattle, the first shared canoe journey. This is now an annual event for Tulalip’s Canoe Family who build and repair the canoes, then train and complete the journey.  The celebration ends with a great potlatch.

Tulalip Casino riches have made possible a museum. Currently the tribes are building a $19 million Hibulb Cultural Center, which is scheduled to open in April 2009.  With a 10,000-square-foot curation facility, the museum will be home for family heirlooms including baskets, textiles, and photographs. The Center is located on a 52-acre site that is also a Natural History Preserve of estuary wetlands with cedar and other forest trees as well as an orchard and a salmon-bearing stream.   

In 2007 the Tribes’ Cultural and Natural Resources Department announced it would attempt to gain copyright status for its tribal stories. 

Tribal Independence

The Point Elliott Treaty established the Tulalip Reservation as a confederation of related tribes.  By so doing the Tulalip Tribes was recognized as the sovereign entity, not the individual tribes that compose it.  Structured under government control in the early years, the tribes had little control over their lives.

The Tulalip Reservation served as the regional government Agency under various Indian agents. Dr. Charles Milton Buchanan (?-1920) served as superintendent  from 1900 to his death in 1920 and was followed by August F. Duclos, Walter F. Dickens, Fred A. Gross, Oscar C. Upchurch, and Raymond T. Bitney.

The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 allowed tribes to set up their own governing boards. Tulalip Tribes wrote a constitution and bylaws, approved January 2, 1936 and ratified on October 3. The Tulalip Board of Directors is composed of seven members.

In early October 1950, the Tulalip Indian Agency office was moved to Everett, first setting up at 3rd Street and Rockefeller Avenue and later moving to the Federal Building on Colby Avenue. The Tulalip Tribes’ Council presently operates on the reservation.

Real Estate and Boom City

Private land ownership -- a concept once foreign to Indian thinking -- began to be embraced by the tribes as a way to control their own destinies. The Tulalips Tribes’ ventured into the both real estate and the sale of fireworks. Tribal members saw the dollar potential in both pursuits since waterfront view property was scarce and big fireworks were outlawed in Washington state, except on Indian reservations.

Natives had suffered the effects of the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, an early government attempt to make Indians into farmers.  Under the Dawes Act, tribal members could receive land allotments -- 160 acres for farming, 80 to raise cattle, and 40 for normal living use. Tulalip allotted all of their reservation land, but over the years many acres were sold to non-tribal members.    

As early as 1929, the Tulalips became interested in the resort business and in securing tideland property.  The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 allowed tribes to form cooperatives and Tulalips began to lease land on Tulalip Bay in 1939.

A new direction came in 1954 under tribal leader Sebastian Williams who put together a Tulalip business consortium, Tulalip Tribes, Inc., a separate department within the Tulalip Tribes that began leasing lots for summer homes. The department acquired the Mission Beach Resort with its fishing boats, café, and store that was started in 1929 by Joseph Coy and Hubert Coy, at that time the only resort on the Pacific Coast owned and operated by reservation Indians. 

Summer cottages and permanent homes multiplied on the reservation over the next decades. Non-tribal folks could own their own homes but rented land from the Tulalip Tribes or from individual tribal families who had taken allotments. Rent money was used for reservation property improvements, welfare assistance programs, scholarships, burial grants, and loans to tribal members. Although leasing gave the Tulalips a needed income, a poor business deal from the Tribes’ perspective came in 1982 when they issued 30-year leases at 1980s prices, with an expiration date of  2012. 

Tulalip’s Boom City directly benefits tribal individuals and families.  Starting more than 30 years ago with only 12 booths, the business has grown to 150 plus booths.   Boom City provides substantial income for tribal members. This cash was particularly important in the 1980s when the Tribes’ winter unemployment rate reached 50 percent and 25 percent in fishing season. Originally located near Tulalip Bay, Boom City now sets up behind Quil Ceda Village. Away from houses and closer to Interstate 5, this location lessens traffic congestion each July and is considered safer for reservation residents.

A Shopping Mall, a Hotel, and Casinos

Tulalips modestly ventured into the gaming industry when they opened a Bingo parlor on June 13, 1983, but their economic destiny changed when a federal law was passed in 1988 that permitted the same types of gambling on reservations as was permitted elsewhere in the state.  Tulalip leaders immediately began plans for a casino to create jobs at decent wages for tribal members.

Tulalip’s first casino opened on July 20, 1992, with 23 gambling stations for blackjack, craps, roulette and poker. The Tulalips were the second tribe in Washington state to open a casino. The Lummis had opened theirs only a few months earlier. 

Tulalips seem to have become a prosperous tribe quickly, but plans have long been in the making.  A solid business base was set in the 1940s and 1950s with the establishment of Tulalip Tribes, Inc., the tribal department solely dedicated to business development.  Even then, the Tribes' property on the northeastern corner of the reservation, bordering along Interstate 5, was chosen as an ideal location for development.   

Today the Tribes operate two casinos, a bingo parlor, and a 12-story hotel, Tulalip Resort Casino, on this site. The lobby and walls of the new hotel are decorated with Tulalip Tribal art including house poles by artists James Madison and Joe Gobin. Quil Ceda Village, an open-air mall begun in 2001 with more than 500,000 square feet of retail space, is home to a large Wal-Mart store, a Home Depot, Seattle Premium Outlets and many other businesses.  There is room to expand since Quil Ceda Village presently uses only 500 of its 2,000-acre potential.

Washington State Representative John McCoy (b. 1943) returned to his native home of Tulalip after working in Washington D.C. and began working with Tulalip Tribes, Inc. to create Quil Ceda Village. The Tulalip Tribes were honored in 2003 by the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, part of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, for their business model.  Tulalip Tribes, Inc. also received status for Quil Ceda Village as a tribal city, a national first.

With an eye to the future, Tulalip Tribes has another accomplishment to add to their list. The tribal business complex has been an economic windfall for its neighboring city of Marysville, which lies east of the reservation, on the east side of Interstate 5.  Marysville and Tulalip have created the Greater Marysville Tulalip Chamber of Commerce, presently the only United States chamber created as a joint venture between a city and a sovereign nation.

Tulalip Tribal revenues were estimated at more than $200 million in 2005. The Tribes have used their new wealth to expand their business enterprises, develop educational programs, and provide better medical and dental services and a cultural center.  They are also buying back 4,000 acres of reservation land that had been sold in past years.  The Tulalip Tribes presently owns more than half of their 22,086-acre reservation. 

In addition they have created a charitable giving program, which helps to support county non-profit organizations.


David A. Cameron, Charles F. LeWarne, M. Allan May, Jack C. O’Donnell and Lawrence E. O’Donnell, “The Native Americans,” Snohomish County: An Illustrated History (Index: Kelcema Books, 2005), 17-144; Colin E. Tweddell, “A Historical and Ethnological Study of the Snohomish Indian People; a report specifically covering their aboriginal and continued existence, and their effective occupation of a definable territory,” in Coast Salish and Western Washington Indians, Vol. 2 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1974);  Herman Haeberlin and Erna Gunther, The Indians of Puget Sound, Vol. 4, No. 1 of the University of Washington Publications in Anthropology (Seattle: University of Washington, 1930); Lita (Koko) Sheldon, Tulalip Tribal Bibliography (Marysville: Planning Department, Tulalip Tribes, 1990 and 1991); , The Continuation of Upper Class Snohomish Coast Salish AttiLawrence David Ryggtudes and Deportment as Seen through the Life History of a Snohomish Coast Salish Woman: a thesis presented to the faculty of Western Washington State College (Bellingham: Western Washington State College, c1977); Carolyn J. Marr, “Assimilation Through Education,” in Between Two Worlds: Experiences at the Tulalip Indian Boarding School, 1905-1932 (Seattle: Washington Commission for the Humanities, 1993); Tulalip Tribes website accessed October 10-November 23, 2008 (http://www.tulaliptribes-nsn.gov); Charles M. Buchanan, “Rights of the Puget Sound Indians to Game and Fish,” Washington Historical Quarterly Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 109-118, April 1915; ”Indians and the Tulalip Agency,” History of Snohomish County Washington ed. by William Whitfield (Chicago and Seattle: Pioneer Publishing Company, 1926), 813-859;  Richard Lindner, “Kwitlah, the Indian Gamble: a Descriptive Narrative of Indian Life on Puget Sound," unpublished manuscript, ca. 1950 (reproduced in Tulalip Tribal 1991 Bibliography Project, Vol. 2); “Indians in the Real-Estate Business,” The Seattle Times, November 28, 1954, p. 10; Tom Daily (with research by David Buerge and Dr. Jay Miller), “Coast Salish Villages of Puget Sound,” website accessed November 14, 2008 (http://www.coastsalishmap.org ); “Providence of Our Lady of Seven Dolors School, Tulalip, Washington, Collection Inventory 1867-1974,”  accessed November 7, 2008 (http://www.providence.org); HistoryLink.org Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Smallpox Epidemic of 1862 among Northwest Coast and Puget Sound Indians,” (by Greg Lange), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed November 15, 2008); Krista J. Kapralos, “Tulalip Tribes’ Hibulb Cultural Center and Natural Preserve Takes Shape,” The Herald, July 11, 2008, p. B-1; Mike Benbow, “The Tulalips’ Rapid Rise Took a Lot More Than Luck,” Ibid., August 24, 2008;  “Maker of Tulalip Totem Pole Tells Story of His Life,”  Everett Daily Herald, Friday, January 2, 1914, p. 2.

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