Stepping back

The Magic Seine of the Minter Bay People


Salmon and cedar were the lifeblood of Native people on Puget Sound. For the S’Hotlemamish of Minter Bay, the coho, chum and cutthroat trout runs were so productive that the villagers were thought to have a magic seine. Woven from cedar limbs, the seine was always full.

At this time of year, the coho runs that filled that seine began to return to Minter Bay, bringing with them the first families coming back to their Minter Creek home from their summer sojourns. Spending a few days to a few weeks at what are now Fox Island, Longbranch, Lakebay, Rosedale and Arletta, the Minter Bay people came home laden with the fruits of summer. Visitors, mostly relatives, arrived, too, seeking to share in the silver salmon rushing upriver.

Rich in salmon, the S’Hotlemamish of Minter Bay were wealthy enough to be considered a high-class village by other villagers on Puget Sound. They married into only the best families throughout the Key Peninsula, the Sahewabc of southern Puget Sound, and upper-class villages from the Duwamish and Puyallup River drainages, to ensure they would have only “good children.”

Continuously occupied for 1,400 years, the village was located north of the mouth of Minter Creek, and had at least three big houses, a potlatch house, and a training house, in 1855. Up to 20 families lived in each of the three longhouses, which featured roofs with a drainage system, an interior lined with mats in lovely geometric designs, and house posts painted in red and black. Bed platforms were built around the interior of the house, with hanging cattail mats partitioning a family’s section, each family’s living area having its own fire hearth.

Villagers arriving in September unloaded their canoes filled with huge baskets of dried red elderberries, blackberries, huckleberries, serviceberries and salal berries, the sweetest of the dried berries; dried camas and fern roots, and medicine plants to refresh their pharmacopeia. The decorated baskets were stored under the bed platforms in their respective longhouses. Visitors erected mat houses close to one another, and near the longhouses. Then, the people set the long basket traps in Minter Creek and trolled for silver salmon at the mouth of the creek.

Those not fishing processed the silver salmon for drying. They wiped off the fish with vine maple moss (because bigleaf maple moss was too dirty), laid the fish on ferns on the ground, cut open each fish, removed the backbones and inserted cedar stick splints to keep the fish sides open. The fish were hung on racks over a smudgy fire under a lean-to or in a smokehouse. Backbones, skeins of salmon eggs and fish heads for snacks were cured too. Other villagers prepared meals to feed the hungry fishermen and fish processors — savory soup with salmon, crunchy dried salmon backbones, camas and a handful of dried huckleberries, seasoned with fresh herbs, accompanied by clams and meat steamed in earth ovens over rock pavements.

The families that had not returned in September came home to Minter Bay by November to prepare for the big chum run, all of it to be cured and stacked in baskets or hung from the rafters in the house away from the heat. It was the dried chum that sustained the villagers through winter. Any visitor who helped with fishing or processing could expect a share of the fish, otherwise the salmon would be offended by the lack of generosity and avoid the fisher-people in the future. With the chum cured and put away, the villagers turned their attention to winter activities — cleaning and repairing gear, winter dances, and potlatches.

Upheavals in the settlement pattern of Indigenous people in southern Puget Sound followed decades of epidemics and the signing of the Medicine Creek Treaty in 1854. Remnants of the Burley Lagoon village joined their Minter Bay brethren sometime before 1854, though most people had moved from the Minter Bay village by 1868, only returning for the fall salmon runs. In 1874, homesteaders torched the Minter Bay longhouses, sweat lodges, menstrual huts and smokehouses.

The Minter Bay S’Hotlemamish joined their kin at the Glen Cove village, established earlier by Minter Bay families, building another longhouse there around 1870. The big fish runs continued to draw the Minter Bay people to their old village site, where loggers did not bother them, and where they cached their dried salmon in a big tree stump, returning periodically to replenish their supplies at home. Eventually even the Glen Cove village disappeared, the inhabitants finding homes on or near the Nisqually, Squaxin Island, Muckleshoot and Puyallup Reservations.

The whispers of those vanished Minter Bay people haunt me as I sit in my car on State Route 302, or slow down to 25 mph for the never-ending construction of the new bridge over Minter Creek, on the Key Peninsula. I hear the echoes of boys chasing fish crows away from the drying racks, drumbeats from the potlatch house accompanying the singing for winter dances, the click of bones for the gambling game, the welcome shouts to relatives arriving by canoe for the salmon runs, and the gasps of children listening to the storyteller talk of a time when Sun was younger brother to Moon. I feel satisfaction in knowing a culvert is coming out, and soon, the wild coho and chum salmon may be bumping each other as they race up Minter Creek past the Minter Creek Hatchery, to redds abandoned long ago, and again overflow the magic seine.

Lynn Larson is an archaeologist and anthropologist who lives on Filucy Bay.