Sunday, April 01, 2012

history & myth

I've been trying to learn a little of the history of the Indians who lived in this area before we whites overran it, but unfortunately there is none.

History consists of written records: wills, deeds, bills of sale, cargo manifests, census records, inventories, etc. Rendering such dry and boring materials properly yields the narratives we call history, a true record of real events which actually happened.

In the absence of written records, there is no history. In its place are legends, which over time coalesce into a variant of history, the orally transmitted epic poetry known as myth.

This is not the first time I've attempted to deal with the unhistorical history of the natives of the Puget Sound region, and that earlier experience taught me that trying to resolve the wild variations and inconsistencies in the legends and stories of the Salish peoples is futile. However, broad outlines of past events are discernible as through a glass, darkly.

The Chimacum inhabited the east side of the Olympic Peninsula, between the head of the Hood Canal and Discovery Bay, and had a fierce reputation among the ordinarily pacific and unwarlike Salish peoples. Some time in the early 19th century they were raided at least once by one of the ferocious seagoing tribes who still live in the islands off the west coast of British Columbia. The tribe survived, but in a weakened condition, and this invited their destruction at the hands of their local rivals.

The details of the Chimacums' last stand are forever lost in the vague welter of conflicting stories spun out from all sides of the sad drama. At least once, probably twice, other Salish people launched wars against the Chimacum. Chief Seattle and his band of Suquamish are cast as belligerents in some of these tales, and the Clallam of the north-central Olympic Peninsula were certainly involved, since they coveted the territory of their neighbors to the east. What's certain is that the powerful and charismatic Patkanim, chief of the Snoqualmie, engineered the final blow, crossing the Sound at about the time of the coming of the whites in the mid-1850's to deliver the coup de gras against the unfortunate Chimacum, who thenceforward ceased to exist as a separate people.

Later today, Catboxette and I will motor down through the shocking poverty of lower Irondale to the mouth of Chimacum Creek, to visit the site of the main village of the tribe, a formerly noteworthy aboriginal group whose true history is now lost in the hopeless confusion of local legends, lies, myths, and tall tales.

See also this article in the Skagit River Journal.

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