From a thicket of trees behind Solid Ground’s Giving Garden at Marra Farm, the waters of the nearly hidden Hamm Creek bubble down through ravines, ditches, and culverts, until finally spilling out into the Duwamish River. For millennia, these waters sustained the life of a verdant valley, from the bountiful salmon that that plied its course from sea to mountain, to the people – dxʷdəwʔabš, the Duwamish themselves – who lived in harmony with the river that shares their name.
But that was before the waters of the Duwamish were poisoned with chemical waste dumped by factories built along its shore over the last century. Before its meandering course – which once nourished the fertile valley around it – was sliced into ramrod-straight channels and lined with barges and shipping cranes. And before it was severed from the great lake that fed it, known to the Duwamish people as x̌ačuʔ.
But the Duwamish people are still here, and the story of their river is not over.
“My people are the historical stewards of this land and we have never left our post,” writes James Rasmussen, a member of the Duwamish Tribal Council who has advocated for the restoration of the river for more than 30 years, in Honoring My Ancestors Through Environmental Advocacy on Seattle’s Front Porch blog. “The Duwamish Tribe, like the River that carries our name, is not lost to history.”
Honoring the lands where we work & live
Solid Ground is on a journey to better understand our role as a nonprofit in colonialist systems that continue to oppress Indigenous peoples today.
We also seek to build authentic partnerships with Indigenous communities to reduce the harm that we cause as an organization, help undo the erasure of Indigenous histories, and celebrate the resilience of the first peoples of Seattle and King County.
At the recommendation of Solid Ground’s Community Accountability Council, we started by amplifying the Indigenous history of the lands we occupy as an organization, from our Giving Garden at Marra Farm and Solid Ground Transportation facilities in South Park to our offices in Wallingford and housing at Sand Point.
The first installment in this blog series, A sacred spring and the ever-flowing resilience of Indigenous peoples, looks at the history and significance of líq’tәd, a red ochre spring that still flows near where Solid Ground operated a Regional Access Point until a few years ago. The second blog post, Sqʷsəb and the people of the big lake, examines how the Sand Point peninsula has changed since colonization and what it meant to the xacuabš people who lived on Lake Washington.
While much has changed about the Duwamish River over the last century and half, you can still get a glimpse of what it looked like before the arrival of European-American colonizers – if you know where to look.
Start by heading north on West Marginal Way, past the warehouses and stacks of shipping containers, until you find a small park wedged between railroad tracks and what we now call the Duwamish Waterway. Walk through the trees to the water’s edge and you’ll find there’s a second river here – shallow and curving instead of straight and deep – and a small island beyond it.
This is Seattle’s last remaining bend of a river that once looped and meandered across this valley from the neighborhood of South Park to the far side of what’s now Boeing Field. Its estuary, where fresh water from as far away as Mount Rainier mixed with the salt water of Elliot Bay, spanned more than 5,200 acres of tidal mudflats, marshes, swamps, and rivers – all teeming with fish and wildlife.
This has been the land of the Duwamish, known as the “people of the inside” in their native Lushootseed, for literally millennia. Modern day archeologists have found evidence along the river of villages dating back to 600 AD, but traditional Salish stories describe geological events going much further back, including the melting of glaciers at the end of the last ice age, which ended over 11,000 years ago.
Through the centuries, the Duwamish River connected the Coast Salish peoples with each other and with the resources of land and water on which they relied. When the first European-American colonizers arrived here in the mid-1800s, several hundred Duwamish families were living in villages along a stretch of the river winding through what is now South Park, Georgetown, and the industrial district of South Seattle.
Villages of the Duwamish River Valley
Among the most important of those communities was túʔulʔaltxʷ (TOO-ool-ahlt-hw), meaning “Herring House,” which stood at the foot of a bluff on the west bank of the river, near where it empties into the bay. It may have had as many as seven longhouses, as well as a massive potlatch house measuring more than 300 feet long, for celebrations and gatherings.
Over on the north end of what is now Boeing Field, on a bend of the river that no longer exists, lived a Duwamish community known in Lushootseed as the “proud people.” This group lived in a pair of longhouses in a village called dxʷqiʷíƛ̕əd (duhw-QWEE-tluhd), “place of the fishing spear.” The village was known for cultivating several acres of wapato, a kind of tuber like a potato, on a particularly fertile plain.
There was also a village called həʔapus (ha-AH-poos) that had its own healer, several longhouses, and hundreds of villagers. It was near the site of an even more ancient village, yəlíqʷad (yull-EE-qwahd) or “Basket Cap,” which may have dated back as far as the 1st century AD. Additional Duwamish villages were clustered to the south where the Duwamish River met the Black River, and to the north in what is now Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle.
These villages were among the 17 communities, totaling more than 90 longhouses, occupied by Coast Salish peoples in the greater Seattle area when white colonizers began to claim the land as their own in the mid-17th century. In less than 50 years, every one of these villages was destroyed – some burned to the ground by colonizers and others abandoned by the Duwamish as white settlers claimed their land and threatened them with violence.
It was Herring House, near Elliot Bay, that survived the longest. But on March 7, 1893, it too was burned down by a small group of West Seattle settlers. The residents of the village, many of them elders, escaped across Elliot Bay in a caravan of canoes packed with their remaining belongings. Soon, many of them would leave Seattle as well.
The making of a waterway
Like the Duwamish before them, European-American settlers saw the Duwamish River as a valuable resource – though not as a habitat for fish and other wildlife.
By the time Herring House was burned, industrial pioneers had already started filling in the mudflats of the river’s estuary with soil from what is now Beacon Hill. In 1913, dredgers began slicing the river’s winding path into straight, deep channels so that ships could more easily reach the docks and factories springing up on the newly leveled earth on its banks.
Most of the valley’s trees were cleared to make way for farmland, including plots farmed by the Marra and Desimone families. Most of that land was eventually paved over to make way for factories and warehouses, but one piece, known as the Marra-Desimone Park, is still farmed today. It’s stewarded by many local organizations and includes Solid Ground’s 3/4-acre Giving Garden, where we teach children and community members about food production and grow produce for the South Park community.
Another of our facilities, the Solid Ground Transportation depot, was later built nearby along the banks of the channelized Duwamish waterway.
During this period of rapid industrialization, all but 2% of the Duwamish River’s original estuary was lost, leading to the rapid decimation of the fish and wildlife that once relied on it. And as more and more factories and industries set up shop in Seattle’s burgeoning port, they found that the newly renamed Duwamish Waterway was also a useful place to dump their waste, much of it toxic. The practice continued, in ways both legal and illegal, for decade after decade as the industries that took over the Duwamish Valley fueled the growth of the booming city around it.
The Duwamish River became dangerously polluted in those decades, with more than 40 chemicals eventually reaching levels now known to be harmful to human and environmental health. That includes cancer-causing chemicals like arsenic, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
Rebirth of a river
But the Duwamish people did not abandon the river. For generations after their last villages were destroyed, the descendants of the Duwamish continued to return to the river to fish as their ancestors had, sometimes sneaking onto the water under the cover of darkness to avoid running afoul of laws against fishing. And they continued to fight for the river despite all that had been done to it.
“While the River may never be what it once was, I believe it will once again nourish our communities.” ~James Rasmussen, environmentalist & Duwamish Tribal Elder
In the 1970s, after archeologists uncovered remains of an ancient village along the river, the Duwamish Tribe successfully fought to preserve the last remaining bend of the original river’s path in Seattle. The tribe also joined others, including Solid Ground, working to daylight various branches of Hamm Creek in South Park in the 1980s and ’90s. And it continued to call attention to the damage done to the river by the industries that grew up beside it.
That attention came in 2001, when the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the Duwamish River a Superfund site, marking it as one of the most polluted places in the country. The designation kicked off a decades-long effort, costing millions of dollars, to prevent future pollution and remove or secure the toxic chemicals left there over the decades. A clean-up plan was approved by the EPA in 2014, but the tribe and its partners continue to push the government and polluting businesses to fully restore the health of the river.
In the meantime, there are already signs that Duwamish River is changing again. Several riverside sites slated for industrial development have been preserved instead as parks, including two recently renamed after the Duwamish villages of həʔapus and t̓uʔəlaltxʷ. Creeks that were routed through pipes and ditches clogged with garbage have been unburied, cleaned, and repopulated with native plants. And young chum and Chinook salmon have returned to recently restored habitat along the river in South Park.
“Today, we are seeing signs of life,” James Rasmussen writes. “And while the River may never be what it once was, I believe it will once again nourish our communities.”
And 156 years after their last village was burned to the ground, the Duwamish once again have a longhouse in Seattle where their people can gather. You’ll find it on West Marginal Way, just across the street from the park named after həʔapus, where the last bend of the Duwamish River in Seattle can still be found.
Join the fight for Seattle’s only river!
The Duwamish River continues to face significant ecological threats even as government agencies and nonprofits work to undo the damage done to it over the last century and a half. Consider joining these organizations in the fight for a healthier Duwamish River.
Sources (accessed 11/30/23)
- Beal, John (1950-2006), HistoryLink.org
- Chief Seattle and the Town That Took His Name, David M. Buerge, Sasquatch Books, 2020
- Native Seattle: Stories from the Crossing-Over Place, Coll Thrush, University of Washington Press, 2017
- The River That Made Seattle: A Human and Natural History of the Duwamish, BJ Cummings, University of Washington Press, 2020
- Duwamish Tribe Website
- New Habitat Attracts Salmon to Duwamish River People’s Park, Port of Seattle Website, Aug. 29, 2023
- Honoring My Ancestors through Environmental Advocacy, James Rasmussen, Front Porch – Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, Nov. 13, 2021
- State of Duwamish River Valley 2023, Duwamish River Community Coalition
- Seattle Duwamish Indigenous Place Names and Settlements, Chinook Wawa, Cascadia Department of Bioregion, Aug. 31, 2022