Vashon Island’s Native People: Navigating Seas of Change

Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Museum
Vashon Island, WA

The exhibit Vashon Island’s Native People: Navigating Seas of Change, created by the all-volunteer Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Museum, provided insights into the culture and unwritten history of the Sxwobabc people, a band of the Puyallup Indians who lived on Vashon-Maury Island for thousands of years. The story of Lucy Gerand (born ca. 1840), a native Sxwobabc woman whose descriptions of their life are the basis of contemporary knowledge, gave a personal focus to this fascinating exhibit.

The main objectives of the exhibit were to present this story accurately and effectively with respect for the Puyallup Tribe’s perspectives, and to reintroduce the story of the Sxwobabc, whose history has never been written. Another objective was to debunk the misconception that native people only used Vashon Island for summer food harvesting, rather than year-round dwellings. Archaeological findings, tribal oral history and Lucy Gerand’s legal testimony provided convincing evidence of permanent Island villages.

Through consultation with educators, language specialists, and tribal leaders, the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Museum crafted an innovative exhibit that educated visitors about a group neglected in the historical record while challenging assumptions about the Island’s Native history and heritage. Eight public programs expanded exhibit themes and engaged visitors with explorations of Vashon archaeology, Coast Salish art, treaty fishing rights, basket weaving, artifact identification, Puyallup youth dance and song, and traditional storytelling.

This exhibit had a positive effect on museum visitation and community engagement, especially with the Puyallup Tribe. Components of the exhibit will enter the permanent exhibit, while tribal collaboration continues at the museum. A smaller traveling exhibit will be loaned to the tribe and other institutions so the story of the Sxwobabc can be shared with audiences around the state.