Across the bay from Port Townsend is a narrow little hunk of land called Indian Island. It’s a crucial component of the great big machine known as the Pacific Northwest Navy Fleet, with ships stoping there to load up before heading out on the open ocean.
But it’s also hugely significant to another group of people -- Puget Sound area tribes. Like most things, it belonged to them before it became non-Indian property, but ever-so-slowly, Indian Island is beginning to open up to its original inhabitants.
Indian Island is the ancestral home of the Chemakum Tribe, then it was later occupied by the S’Klallams. Immigrants from Europe claimed parts of the land after the S’Klallams signed a treaty in 1855, forcing them to relocate.
Though, the chief actually bought up about 15 acres himself to hold claim to the island. The last family to own parcels there sold it off in 1939 to the current owner: The Navy. The sale effectively cut off access to the tribes for most of the 20th century.
The installation was a big deal during World War II, when crews would load up ships heading to the Pacific while also guarding the Puget Sound region. It’s still an important location for the Navy since it’s the only deep water facility on the West Coast with no access restrictions like bridges or shallow water.
And, as you’d expect, Naval Magazine Indian Island Cmdr. Rocky Pulley takes this history seriously.
“The vast responsibility that I have as a commanding officer, not only to the 160 people that work on board this installation on a daily basis, but the history and the upkeep of the installation, the ground itself, it weighs on me," he said. "If I leave this installation and my impact is in a negative sense, I affect everything going forward.”
Those 160 people do things like load and unload ships, fight fires and do a lot of environmental work to repair a lot of damage done during the height of the war. While the island itself is roughly 2,700 acres, the Navy only uses a sliver of the land, leaving the majority of the island largely untouched.
And this is the place where the histories collide with the legacy of the Native inhabitants, which stretches back centuries, and the mess left behind by its more recent tenants. The spot that once served as a massive landfill is now covered in tall grass and dotted with trees. Naval Magazine Environmental Manager Bill Kalina explains the area along the shore that has ties to the tribe.
“This was the home of Lach-Ka-Nim, the S’Klallam chief. He lived on this point which is Bogge Spit, which was for thousands of years a fish camp. There’s shell middens here. There’s artifacts that were recovered here over the years during excavations. So we bring some of these tribal youth groups down here from the S’Klallam tribe," he said. "They come and visit this site to see where the Chief, the Prince lived, the Prince of Wales. And also go and look at the fish camp and learn why this was a fish camp. So they learn about their heritage and their history. This was an important place for the S’Klallams, and prior to them, the Chemakums.”
The tribe’s connection to this land runs deep. It’s not only a food source, but also a place to harvest cedar and perform ceremonies. And as Laura Price explains, this island was considered to be in the “heart of S’Klallam territory.” Price is the arts and cultural history director for the Port Gamble tribe, which is a band of the S’Klallam people.
“That’s where the gatherings happened. That’s where the ceremonies took place. When we had a big naming ceremony or some other important event, people would come from all over, but that was the central hub.”
This becomes about more than just accessing land, this is how the tribe is able to connect to and share its culture. And they weren’t permitted to do that for a very long time, until something changed a few decades ago. The thinking about treaty rights began evolving and around that same time the Navy started negotiating with the tribe to let members onto the island for certain purposes.
The initial agreement restored the tribe’s treaty rights: harvesting naturally occuring shellfish. But the parties go back to the negotiating table every year. And as Cmdr. Pulley explains, the talks have changed. They began to allow harvests again, and last summer tribal youth were able to land their canoes for the first time in more than 80 years.
“What has happened through the course of time is, you know, with those agreements, and just being good neighbors, we’ve allowed that to happen on the installation as far as teaching and training the youth. Anytime we can go out and improve those relationships and keep that culture going for the tribes I’m all for it,” he said.
It’s an unusual partnership. Kelly Sullivan, who’s the executive director for the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe says, in a way, she’s almost glad it’s the Navy they’re working with.
“If it weren’t for the Navy, we could have 50 rich people living there and not have access to anything. These artifacts that we find would be gone,” she said.
But it cuts both ways since the same restrictions that protected the land from development have also kept the tribe out. That leaves Sullivan feeling conficted because while they can visit the island, it's still under lock and key.
Even so, she explains the tribe believe it's too important not to fight for it. And the Navy says this place is too important to let it go. They haven’t struck the perfect compromise yet, but both sides say they’ll keep working at it.