Dover, Harriette Shelton Williams (1904-1991)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 7/27/2009
  • Essay 9079

Daughter of Chief William Shelton -- the famed Tulalip storyteller, wood-carver, and cultural leader -- Harriette Shelton Williams Dover followed her father's fine example and invested her entire adult life into efforts to reintroduce various traditional aspects and practices of their native heritage. Among Harriette's many accomplishments was that of helping revive traditional dances, the Lushootseed language, and tribal appreciation for a proud past. In addition, Harriette served as the second female elected to the Tulalip Tribes' Board of Directors (and first Tribal Council Chairwoman), and she took a lead role in reestablishing the ancient First Salmon Ceremony at Tulalip -- the now-thriving reservation located just west of Marysville and north of Everett.

Ancient Traditions

In 1904 Harriette (Hiahl-tsa) Shelton was born to William (Wha-cah-dub) Shelton (1869-1938) who was of Snohomish, Skay-whah-mish, Puyallup, and Wenatchee ancestry and Guemes Island's Ruth (Siastenu) Sehome (1857-1958) of the Klallam and Samish tribes.

Raised in relatively traditional ways on the Tulalip Reservation, she spoke primarily the Snohomish dialect of the Coast Salish language in her earliest years. As a child Harriette hauled water from the well and collected firewood for her kin group, learned to smoke salmon, pick wild berries, drink fresh stream water using a cup made from a Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) leaf, was taught to respect all tribal elders, and learned morals and ethics through the oral transmission of various legends. In fact, in about 1909 William's mother, Hat's Kol Litsa, took Harriette out on a walk along the old Tulalip Road one day and ventured into the woods where she made clandestine efforts to teach her young granddaughter the ancient Indian ways to connect with nature's spirits -- a forbidden act that, if discovered by the authorities, would have earned a term in the Tulalip jailhouse.

A Western Education

Harriette's father -- who had been raised in the old ways -- had left home as a teenager in order to attend the reservation's catholic Mission School so that he could augment his Native knowledge with modern Western ways. But he only lasted there for two short years. His departure was prompted by an incident of typically punitive cruelty for that time and place: After he and some pals were caught laughing and swimming on a Sunday afternoon, they were brutally thrashed with a switch. As Harriette later recalled: "My father never stepped foot in the church [again] when he got out of that mission school. He said 'No church has to be that cruel.' ... He went back the way he had in the beginning and that was strictly Indian"(TOBP, p. 8).

In the 1890s William married Ruth and the couple had six children – three of whom survived childhood: Robert (1891-1930), Ruth (1902-1917), and Harriette -- and the family lived in the Mission area of Tulalip Bay. Although times were always tough on the reservation, William managed to find gainful employment in the local mill and as general mechanic for the governmental Indian Agency.

Indian Boarding School

In 1911 Harriette (who had been baptized as a Catholic) was ready to begin attending school. But because William detested the reservation's Mission School -- and, as Harriette would point out: "Public schools did not accept American Indians. Way back there, American Indians were not [considered] human, you know" (TOBP, p.2) -- the only other option was the reservation's non-religious government-run Tulalip Boarding School.

And thus at age 7 she was among the approximately 225 boys and girl students who left home and together faced a nightmarish existence within those walls. Each were assigned an ID number (Harriette's was No. 33), and their grueling daily schedule began with a loud bell awakening them at 5:30 a.m. Then, after a military-style roll call, and an exercise program at 6:00 a.m. that included marching drills, the students' entire day was regimented until the lights-out bell rang at 9:00 p.m.

The boarding school resembled a prison camp in additional ways: "Saturday was always inspection," she later recalled. "We wore those uniforms. Navy blue serge ... stiff and scratchy. That was a killer. The sun was shining. We were lined up outside. And we were lined up there for maybe an hour, you know. Out in the sun.  Employees, would walk up and down the line and see how your hair and everything is" (TOBP, p. 9). As a capper, Sunday dinners often ended with a despicable "treat" for each student: two cookies that had been stored uncovered in the dingy basement for several days -- each replete with a speckling of mouse droppings.

Speaking Up

The Department of Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs, as Harriette described it, was "just absolutely insane ... you know: with the power to civilize us." As was common on American Indian reservations elsewhere, "We were punished for speaking our language in that boarding school. It was strictly against their regulations. Everybody said that is against the law to be speaking the language." Yet the young students enjoyed occasional conversations in their native tongue, and one day a snitch informed the school's fearsome matron who relished the opportunity to lay down the law.

"I was nine years old," Harriette recalled. "We were all about the same age ... we were talking Indian. ... Somebody went and told on us because a matron ... came where we were down in the playroom, and each of us got a strapping. ...We were nine years old, and we were speaking our language. I will always remember that strapping. That really hurt. She hit us as hard as she could ... . She strapped us from the back of the neck all the way to our ankles. That burned. But, you know, the physical hurt was not as bad as how I felt for in my own mind ... . Being strapped: I never got over that for a long, long time. In fact, I am not over it yet" (TOBP, p. 9).

Treaty Day

Williams' efforts to preserve old ways led him to petition the Reservation Superintendent and Secretary of the Interior to allow him to lead the building of a new longhouse as a community center. In addition he proposed that his people be allowed an annual celebration to commemorate the signing of their treaty on January 22, 1855. That was when the leaders of 22 Puget Sound tribes were pressured by the state to contractually relinquish their lands -- and one result was the formation of various reservations, including "Tulalip," where the now-homeless Samish, Skagit, Snohomish, Snoqualmie, Stillaguamish and Suiattle tribes all relocated along with the small band of Tulalip people from the Hood Canal area.

Against all odds -- and probably only because Williams pitched the idea to the government as a way to instill in young tribal members the idea that modern Western ways were obviously superior to the old primitive ones -- he was granted his wish. The traditional-styled longhouse was erected in 1913, and the new annual "Treaty Day" event first took place on January 22, 1914. They were mainly approved, as Harriette recalled, because the proposal was stated in terms of providing a way, "to show the Indian children how really fortunate they are that they can go to schoo ... and they've got good food and nice clothes," and that their prior existence had been "a poor life. Of course, we didn't think it was a poor life" (TOBP, p. 10). "The Indians had a better way of life than anything on the face of the earth," she said. "If the white man had stopped to look and listen, we would have had a better country. Its enormous riches and resources would still be pretty much there, instead of being torn up, dynamited out of the ground. Now it's almost too late" (Ryyg p.197).

Disease Strikes

In February 1917 Harriette's sister, Ruth, was one of about 30 Indian kids who fell ill that season. In March the reservation's superintendent allowed her to return home to heal, and then, when Harriette also showed signs of sickness, she too was sent home, where Ruth died of tuberculosis in May. "There were many families who all the children died ... . There was never a week went by on our reservation but what we had a funeral. Every week. Sometimes we would have two funerals a week ... . Sometimes it was for children. But it took ... quite a while to get over that one about my sister because I missed her" (TOBP, p. 3).

Harriette eventually got well, but in the meantime she was not welcomed back to school for two years and that delay helped cause her to fall behind in her education. In 1922 -- 10 years after starting there -- she finally completed sixth grade and, progressing apace, Harriette graduated from Everett High School in 1926.

Married Life

Dreams to attend the University of Washington that fall were abandoned after Harriette attended a "Little America" dance event at Seattle's Masonic Hall where she met Francis Williams from Tacoma. Of Klallam Coast Salish descent, Williams was an Assistant Engineer on a steam-powered ferryboat that made a daily roundtrip from Seattle-to-Port Angeles-to-Victoria, B.C.

The young couple married in July 1926, and moved into an apartment on Queen Anne Hill. They had a son Wayne (Squil Quittue) Williams in 1928.

The 1927 Land Claims Case

Meanwhile, back in 1927, Harriette had assisted her father in one of the great quests of his life: that of challenging the federal government -- via an historic lawsuit -- to honor the many promises it had broken regarding the original 1855 Point Elliot Treaty. It was, in fact, a direct result of that treaty that the Tulalip Reservation was initially established in 1856. Formed on rocky land that had apparently never been the site of any particular tribe's permanent village, the site was where the government ultimately coerced various tribes to relocate and cohabitate in an enduringly uneasy alliance.

In the process of preparing their case, William led meetings between tribal elders and lawyers and Harriette was assigned the task of taking notes as they brainstormed and organized. Eventually hearings were held in the Federal Courthouse down in Seattle. After losing their case the tribes tried again in the Appeals Court in San Francisco but in 1928 the court ruled against them.

Abandoned and Elected

Then in 1935, Francis transferred to a job with the Washington State Ferry system and began working the Mukilteo-to-Whidbey Island run. The young family relocated there and lived at Columbia Beach. But before long the old steam-driven ships were replaced by new diesel-powered models and Francis was laid off. From there, he drifted around -- not checking in for many months at a time -- and Harriette ended up moving back to Tulalip and staying with her parents. 

In March 1939 -- almost exactly one year after her father's passing -- Harriette was elected to serve on the Tulalip Tribes' seven-member Board of Directors (or Council). She was re-elected in 1941 while also maintaining her job as postmaster of the reservation's U.S. Post Office. For a time during her 14 years on the board she became tribal chairwoman. Though committed to making progress for her people, it was a continuous frustrating struggle: "It seems like all my life I've just been muddling through things ... . It's been one stone wall after another. We never get over it ..." (Ryyg p.90).

Work-a-day World

Throughout the years, Harriette worked at numerous jobs outside her home -- often times as a domestic servant to well-to-do white families -- though such gigs were never easy to get. At one point she ended up on welfare in order to support her kids, but she always kept seeking employment. Harriette spoke of the challenges that Native American women faced in the job market including being pawed and forcibly kissed by potential white employers during interviews, and getting rejected on the spot after responding to job listings posted by local cafes and even by one dentist's office.

"There's no use asking for work in Everett or certainly never Marysville," She said. "I remember I was asking for a dishwashing job ... at the Yacht Club in Everett" (Ryyg, p. 278). Upon entering the building just off Bond Street, a receptionist barked at her to get out and enter the back door instead. Same thing when she once tried to apply at Everett's J.C. Penney's department store on Colby Avenue (Riddle, e-mail).

Twin Teepees

In June of 1941 she actually took on another job down at Seattle's popular Twin Teepees restaurant (7201 Aurora Avenue N), near Green Lake -- the iconic venue that boasted two cement-based teepee-like buildings and a hokey, cartoonish American Indian-themed decor.

"I'd put on my Indian costume and stand by the door with the menus." People would come in the front door "and I would say 'Two?' if there were two people. They'd jump back and say 'You pert near scared me to death. I thought you were a statue" (Ryyg, p. 259). Such incidents must have been quite demeaning for Harriette -- then an elected member of the Tulalip Tribal Council who even became its chairwoman at one point in the 1940s.

Tulalip Postmaster

From September, 1942, into 1945 Harriette took on a job stringing wiring inside of airplanes down at the Boeing plant in Seattle. At some point she and Francis Williams got back together -- living in a Seattle hotel along 1st Avenue -- but finally got divorced in the late 1940s. It was while working at her post office job in 1949 that she met a younger white man who stopped in while visiting his parents who lived in a modest home on forested land leased from the tribes.

In 1950 she and George Dover (d. 1969) married and were soon blessed with the birth of their son, William Dover, who -- like Harriette's son Wayne -- went on to serve his country in the U.S. military.

Community service

Over the ensuing years Harriette Dover found many additional ways to serve her community. In 1955-1956 she helped agitate and shame the Marysville Public School District into constructing a new school on the reservation, and upon its opening in 1959 she served as its first PTA president. Beyond that, Harriette ended up joining Everett's Business and Professional Women's Club (and served on their Program Committee); became a member of Everett's Church Women United group; and became a freelance writer of numerous essays published by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

In the 1970s she set an example for Tulalip youth by earning a degree at Everett Community College while in her 70s. Harriette also played a role in various additional Indian affairs of her times including serving as a witness before Federal Judge George Boldt's (1903-1984) court in hearings about the Indian fishing rights that ultimately ended in 1974 with the legal case of United States v. Washington (384 F. Supp. 312) which affirmed the treaty rights to continue harvesting salmon "at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations."

Enduring Legacies

But of her life's many admirable achievements, perhaps the most significant in the long run is that Harriette spent many years studiously collecting and protecting scores of Coast Salish artifacts. Going way beyond merely preserving those ethnographic items, she actively shared information about them and their historic import with tribal and non-tribal groups via displays and lectures both on and off the reservation. In addition, during the 1970s she helped revive the ancient -- and once outlawed -- First Salmon Ceremony, which welcomed the arrival of each spring's new run of revered fish.

Furthermore, Hiahl-tsa -- the loving daughter of Wha-cah-dub and Siastenu -- also worked with academic linguists to help save her people's Lushootseed language from extinction. Upon her death on February 6, 1991, there were, reportedly, a mere 17 surviving elders of the Tulalip tribes who still spoke Lushootseed and a Tribal Cultural Resources Department was soon founded in order to help preserve more of their at-risk culture. Next, we all have much to look forward to with the impending publication of Harriette Shelton Williams Dover's amazing memoirs by the University of Washington Press.


Peter Blecha telephone conversation with Wayne W. Williams, June 30, 2009; "Tulalip Oral Biography Project: Harriette Shelton Dover," transcript of interviews in June 1980 interview by Sherry Guydelkon (copy in possession of Tulalip Tribes Communications Center); Lawrence David Rygg, “The Continuation of Upper Class Snohomish Coast Salish Attitudes and Deportment As Seen Through the Life History of a Snohomish Coast Salish Woman” (master’s thesis, Western Washington State College, 1977); Ignacio Lobos, "Harriette Shelton Dover, Leader Of Tulalips, Shared Her Culture," The Seattle Times, February 9, 1991, (; "Tulalip Indian Tribes," in "Travel and History, Online Highways website accessed June 29, 2009 (; Betty Lou Gaeng, "Siastenu -- Ruth Sehome Shelton -- Good will ambassador for her people," The Women's Legacy Project of Snohomish County, website accessed June 30, 2009 (;, The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Shelton, William (1868-1938)," (by Margaret Riddle), (accessed June 27, 2009); Margaret Riddle email to Peter Blecha, June 22, 2009, in possession of Peter Blecha, Seattle.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You