The history of San Juan Island contains the stuff of good popular history: absconding with livestock, drawing of guns, and angry words. Traditionally, the islands were home to an Indian people, the Central Coast Salish. During the era of exploration by European nations, Spanish, British, French, Russian, and later, Americans, entered the region, making it a part of an international fur trade. By the mid-19th century, the northwest became populated with a new breed: the settler. Nearing the close of the frontier, borderlands like the one shared by England and the United States were the site of power flexing and law breaking as those countries tried to bring these disputed territories under their control.
It is this borderland history that the park represents, the interaction of Salish peoples with Euro-American explorers, traders, and settlers, and the conquest and division of a continent between European and American governments.
Central Coast Salish
The San Juan archipelago is part of the traditional area of the Central Coast Salish, which collectively is made up of five component language groups: Squamish, Halkomelem, Nooksack, Northern Straits, and Clallam.  These five groups traditionally occupied the southern end of the Strait of Georgia, the lower Fraser Valley, and lands in and around the Strait of Juan de Fuca, including portions of the Olympic Peninsula and the entire San Juan archipelago. Within those five groups, there are several different associated groups. The Northern Straits, which by the mid-nineteenth century had six identifiable groups, occupied the islands: the Sooke, the Saanich, the Semiahmoo, the Songhees, the Lummi, and the Samish.  The Songhees, Saanich, Lummi, and Samish all had winter villages in the islands. Two other groups from the islands are believed to have joined the Lummi during the period of European settlement: the Klalakamish from the north end of San Juan Island and the Swallah from East Sound on Orcas Island. 
Northern Straits Salish were semi-sedentary, moving as seasons changed. Subsistence was based on a combination of fishing, hunting, and gathering. Fishing, primarily of salmon varieties, was of particular importance as seasonal runs provided numbers of fish, which were dried for winter stores. Hunting on sea included seals and porpoise, and on land, deer, elk, black bear, beaver, and in some cases mountain goats were taken. Gathering included a variety of mollusks, crabs, and sea urchins, as well as over 40 different seasonal plants, which provided food, medicines, and materials for crafts. Camas was of particular importance to the Straits Salish, who maintained camas beds utilizing reseeding and burning methods, and preserved their harvest for year round use. 
Salish groups had established winter villages, which consisted of one or more longhouses. These structures had a permanent framework of posts and beams with removable roof and wall planks. Summer homes were huts, with slabs of cedar bark. Northern Straits tradition during the early nineteenth century indicates that villages began developing defensive structures and designs into village construction, including trenching and wall building around the entire village. 
The basic social structure for the Salish was the household, which usually was composed of several related families. Kinship was bilateral rather than lineal, with both maternal and paternal relations holding similar status in terms of social organization and kinship. On a larger level, one household with several dependent households formed a local group or community. Individuals were identified by the group they resided with; the primary bond in local groups was a shared culture and language, not a unified political structure.  The concept of tribe would not come into being until relations with non-Indian settlers and the United States and Canadian governments necessitated such political entities. Conflict among villages was common, usually precipitating raids on the offending village.
The Salish relied heavily on canoes for transportation and subsistence activities. Carved from large cedar logs, the Salish constructed at least five different canoe styles. The Salish also engaged in various forms of art, mostly carving of house posts, grave monuments, tools, and ceremonial masks. The Salish also produced several types of basketry: burden baskets with an open lattice style for gathering shellfish and roots; tightly coiled berry baskets; and flexible cattail bags for dried fish.  Blankets were woven from wool of mountain goats or a breed of wool dog (now extinct) or from fireweed cotton. Salish also wove cedar mats for house construction, mattresses, and canoe mats.
Local groups were divided among worthy people, worthless people, and slaves.  The Salish participated in forehead flattening at early ages, with the exception of children born of slaves. Life ceremonies were celebrated around signs of puberty (menstruation or voice change) and marriages were negotiated. Feasts and potlatches were held around major life events or crises, usually held by all the houses of a village who invited villages from around the area. Special ceremonies were held for the first salmon, the spirit dance, cleansing ceremonies, and, in some villages, for secret societies.  At death, Salish were wrapped and placed in a raised canoe or box, with rituals held years later in which the body was re-wrapped and given a display of hereditary privileges, after which the deceased's name could again be spoken. 
The Lummi belief system places special importance on San Juan Island, particularly on a small island located in Garrison Bay called Guss Island. The Lummi believe this small island to be their place of origin into this world. This site holds sacred value that still remains with the tribe today.
Last Updated: 19-Jan-2003