Skokomish Artist and Counselor Delbert Miller: Reclaiming the Breath of the Land

By Sandra Kaiser

Delbert Miller ’96 helps the younger Skokomish people remember who they are, connecting them to their history and the teachings of their ancestors.

Delbert Miller

Delbert Miller ’96 matches Skokomish stories to anthropologists’ data, creating cultural geography for his people.

It wasn’t always difficult. For centuries, nine different groups of Skokomish lived in extended family communities along the beaches and mountains that edge Hood Canal. A fjord-like stretch of Puget Sound between the Olympic Mountains and the Kitsap Peninsula, Hood Canal was gouged out some 13,000 years ago during the retreat of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet.

Historically, we used drumming planks in our longhouses, but they hadn’t been used since the early 1900s,” Miller said. “The children now learn how to drum on the plank together. It’s a way to transmit history.

“Anthropologists have estimated that 12,000 years ago our village sites were along these shores,” said Miller, a drug and alcohol counselor for the Skokomish Tribe.

The Skokomish were one of the nine groups of the Tuwaduq, who were Salish people of Puget Sound. In 1859, the Treaty of Point-No-Point, named after a spot on the Kitsap Peninsula, created the Skokomish Indian Reservation on 5,000 acres at the mouth of the Skokomish River. By the end of the 19th century, Tuwaduq groups, now all called Skokomish, were forced to leave other traditional sites around Hood Canal and move to the marshy willow lowlands north of Shelton.

The historical and blood ties to their ancient sites frayed in memory over several generations. As those ties disintegrated, the rate of substance abuse and mental illness in the tribe grew.

Studying psychology and counseling at Evergreen in the mid-1990s, Miller looked for ways to link history with healing. “In one program, we were supposed to study Columbus,” he laughed. “My thesis explored whether Christopher Columbus was schizophrenic.”

Miller has spent decades retrieving anthropologists’ data about old Skokomish village and fishing sites, and matching it with tribal stories and memories to create a new cultural geography for his people. A traditional carver, composer and storyteller, Miller has also reclaimed almost-lost artforms such as the drumming plank, a 16-foot cedar board that was traditionally found in the Skokomish longhouses.

“Historically, we used drumming planks in our longhouses, but they hadn’t been used since the early 1900s,” Miller said. “The children now learn how to drum on the plank together. It’s a way to transmit history.” One of Miller’s carved planks resides at Evergreen’s Longhouse.

Last year, Miller was one of three Native American artists in the state to receive a fellowship from Artist Trust, a Seattlebased foundation. In January, he presented an artist talk called, “stuxWa?scH3la, Keep the Knowledge and Memories of Our Ancestors Alive” at Evergreen’s Longhouse. He also recently received a national award from First Peoples Fund, an organization promoting Native American arts, recognizing him as an exceptional Native American artist “who embodies the collective spirit—that which manifests self-awareness and a sense of responsibility to sustain the cultural fabric of a community.”

Passing on traditional songs and tales

Passing on traditional songs and tales connects Skokomish people to the land, according to Delbert Miller ’96.

Working with children and their families, Miller draws on Skokomish cultural geography to give the children names connected to the villages where their families once lived and where their ancestors are buried. He also teaches them songs associated with traditional places, and instructs their parents to take the children to the sites so they can link their name with the site.

“Our oral tradition says the Creator made the world for the coming of humans,” said Miller. “He blew the breath of life into the land, and then created the people, blowing the breath of life into them to live in that particular place. When they are moved away from that place, they lose the breath of life. We all need the reassurance of knowing where we are in the landscape.”

Some of the old sites can’t be reached by canoe or on foot, because they are gone forever. Around 1900, a developer diked and plowed the area between the west and main channel at the mouth of the Skokomish River. Several plant species disappeared, including the sweetgrass used by the Skokomish for their basketry. Between 1926 and 1930, the city of Tacoma built two dams on the North Fork of the Skokomish River, increasing Tacoma’s electricity and creating Lake Cushman, while inundating a Skokomish summer village. Potlatch State Park on Highway 101 sits where the Skokomish winter village of Enetai once existed.

Miller visits those villages in memory with the descendants of the families that once lived there. He also uses the annual tribal canoe journey of Northwest tribes to connect the Skokomish with the greater Salish family.

“I’ve been paddling along with members of several tribes, telling stories and naming the old places, when we’ve realized we’re all actually related,” said Miller.

Tribal ancestors would not recognize the Skokomish River delta today because it is disfigured from years of damaging farming practices and deforestation. Poorly maintained logging roads on steep, denuded hillsides regularly slough off rocks and mud into the river. Agricultural runoff brings farm chemicals downriver, where they concentrate in shellfish, a traditional harvest and food source for Skokomish people.

The Army Corps of Engineers has noted the environmental degradation of the Skokomish River basin and its threat to endangered Chinook, chum, steelhead, and Dolly Varden trout, which are traditional Skokomish foods. November and December floods that force migrating fish to swim over waterlogged roads have helped bring attention to the ailing ecosystem.

An interagency group that brings the tribe, the U.S. Forest Service, local landowners, Tacoma, and other government officials together, the Skokomish Watershed Action Team is consulting with the Corps to restore the river. The Corps has developed a $41-million plan to haul car bodies out of the river, add the large woody debris needed by young salmon and trout, and restore many major tributaries. Public hearings are being held on the plan this summer.

For Miller, culinary memory of kway’at, or Dolly Varden, is important to pass on.

“Kway’at were a favorite meal for our people,” he said. “We hope they come back.”