Before white colonizers chopped down the alder, ash, and towering Douglas fir to make way for farmland, before the military paved over the earth to build airstrips and hangars, and before Solid Ground converted some of those naval buildings into homes for people escaping homelessness, the land we now know as Sand Point was called Sqʷsəb, meaning “fog,” by the people who inhabited this land since time immemorial.
This was the land of the “people of the big lake,” the Xacuabš in their native Lushootseed. This collection of interrelated peoples lived in communities ringing the shores of X̌ačʔu, now called Lake Washington, before the arrival of European-American settlers. The Xacuabš had longhouses to the north and south of Sqʷsəb, and they came to the peninsula often to gather fish, tubers, berries, and bark for basket weaving from its forests and marshes. They told mythical stories about a stream that flowed through it.
The Xacuabš longhouses disappeared from around Lake Washington more than a century ago, but the Indigenous people of this land have not. Today, Sqʷsəb continues to be a place where Native American descendants from tribes across the continent live, work, and build community together on the shores of X̌ačʔu, the big lake. Some live on Solid Ground’s Sand Point Housing campus, while others are case managers and residential advocates there.
The first stories of the land
Through millennia, the Indigenous histories of this land were passed down as stories told by one generation to the next, going back so far that some tell of the melting of the glaciers that carved the earth and formed what we know now as Puget Sound. But the intergenerational story sharing was disrupted abruptly by the mid-19th century arrival of white colonialists, who first brought diseases that decimated Indigenous populations and later forced the survivors off their ancestral land and sought to erase their language and culture.
For these reasons, most of the Sqʷsəb stories and histories have been lost. Much of what survives was recorded and interpreted by white anthropologists and historians whose retelling of Indigenous history is inevitably colored by their own bias and cultural references. However flawed, these are the stories they’ve left us.
For one, the Sqʷsəb peninsula known to the Xacuabš would have been much smaller in the times before Lake Washington was lowered nine feet by engineers seeking a more convenient water route between lake and sound. The Xacuabš called the north shore of the peninsula Salʷlagʷac, or “much inner cedar bark,” because it was a good place to gather the bark used in everything from baskets to diapers.
The peninsula was also home to stands of enormous Douglas fir – some more than six feet in diameter – as well as marshland and a small lake called Wistalbabš. The Xacuabš came here often to catch steelhead and cutthroat trout in the lake, gather camas bulbs and wapato tubers, and pick medicinal snowberries.
Lushootseed Terms Pronunciation & Definitions Key
Čaʔalqu • \chah-ATHL-qoo\ • a small stream at Sand Point, meaning “hidden water”
Salʷlagʷac • \s-lahgw-lahgw-ahts\ • the north shore of Sand Point, meaning “much inner cedar bark”
Sqʷsəb • \s-qw-sub\ • Native name of the Sand Point peninsula
Wistalbabš • \wee-stahl-babbhs\ • a small lake later called Mud Lake
X̌ačʔu • \hahtch-oo\ • Lake Washington
Xacuabš • \hah-choo-AHBSH\ • the Indigenous people who lived around Lake Washington, meaning “the people of the big lake”
The people of the big lake spent their winters in longhouses grouped around the mouths of various streams, where they set up weirs to catch salmon. These included a group that wintered in longhouses just to the north of Sqʷsəb, at the mouth of Thorton Creek in what is now Matthews Beach, and another group to the south at Wolf Bay, near a prairie at today’s Windermere neighborhood. These three longhouses at Wolf Bay were likely home to the Sk-tahl-mish, a prominent group of Xacuabš and one of the signatories to the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliot.
Flowing out of Wistalbabš was a stream known as Čaʔalqu, or “hidden water,” about which the Xacuabš told mythical stories, according to historian David Buerge. The people of the lake saw sites like this as openings to the underworld and the land of the dead.
But whatever they were, the mythical stories of of Čaʔalqu have been lost, like the lake and stream themselves.
Sqʷsəb after the Xacuabš
The Xacuabš did not disappear overnight. Instead, their numbers dwindled over the decades with the arrival of European diseases followed by white settlers seeking to push Native communities off their resource-rich ancestral lands. Some Xacuabš left the lake to live with other tribes on newly formed reservations, others did their best to survive by adapting to urban life in the area’s new and rapidly growing cities, and a small number persisted in living along the lake as they always had.
But few remained by 1916, when civil engineers completed the Montlake cut, lowering X̌ačʔu and draining the salmon spawning beds and wapato marshes that once nourished the people of the big lake. Over the decades, the U.S. Navy flattened the gently rolling land on Sand Point and filled in its small lake, Wistalbabš. Much of the earth was paved over for landing strips, parking lots, and various military structures.
But there was a moment when it looked like Sand Point could become a center for Indigenous culture in Seattle. This came in the 1990s, when the Navy decided it was done with Sand Point and declared it surplus property. The Muckleshoot Tribe, which includes descendants of the Xacuabš, laid claim to the land through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, saying it had treaty rights to the property as traditional fishing grounds.
The tribe had a grand vision for the land: a marina with 30 fishing boats, businesses employing Native Americans, and a vocational school and community college for 3,500 students from tribes across the continent, with 500 of them living on the campus. In all, it would encompass 80 acres.
But the City of Seattle had its own Community Preferred Reuse Plan for Sand Point, which included an extension of Magnuson Park as well as a housing zone of up to 200 units of housing for formerly homeless people, which later became Solid Ground’s Housing campus. In the end, the tribe agreed to drop its claim at Sand Point in exchange for the city’s help securing land near its reservation in Auburn.
The modern-day Indigenous people of Sqʷsəb
Though the Muckleshoot’s vision for Sand Point wasn’t realized, it remains a place where Indigenous people of many tribes live and work, just like the rest of Seattle. Around 20 residents of Solid Ground’s Sand Point Housing identified as Native American or Alaskan Native this year, and several staff members do as well.
They include David Olivera, a Sand Point Housing staff member who has worked with children here for more than two decades. David is descended from the Tarahumara people of modern-day Mexico, and his children share the heritage of the Iñupiat people of what is now Alaska.
Just last month, David attended the Alaska Conference of Native Americans with his children and was in the room for a historic speech from Congresswoman Mary Sattler Peltola, who recently became the first Alaskan Native to represent Alaska in congress since it became a state in 1959.
Congresswoman Peltola wasn’t the only history-making Indigenous leader at the conference. Also on the stage that day was Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who last year became the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary in the U.S.
“Oh my God, it was amazing,” says David. “I mean, it took 63 years to get an Alaskan Native in Congress.”
David says these history-making leaders are signs of progress for Native Americans after centuries of displacement, marginalization, and discrimination. But he said far too many non-Natives still see American Indians as a page from history, rather than the vibrant part of modern American culture and politics that they are.
“If you look up American Indians, Alaskan Natives, they show you old, historic photos. If you look up other groups, they show you newer, modern photos,” he says. “It’s a stereotype.”
Learning About the Lands Where We Work
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 in order 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.
You can read the first installment in this blog series, A sacred spring and the ever-flowing resilience of Indigenous peoples, to learn about Líq’tәd, a red ochre spring that still flows near where Solid Ground operated a Regional Access Point until a few years ago.Solid Ground Land Acknowledgement & Resources for Deeper Learning