“Tulalip From My Heart” by Harriette Shelton Dover

(Originally published on Monday, June 18th, 2018)

My library account is currently suspended because of this book. Well, that’s not entirely fair. It’s suspended because I haven’t returned the book. Not really fair to blame it. Someone put a hold on this book after I checked it out and I have not yet checked it back in. Usually they would just renew it for weeks and weeks, but, as I said, someone put a hold on it. 

I did not intend to keep it for so long. The fact is that I lost it for some time. Even now I don’t know where it was, my wife found it and put it on the kitchen counter and I never asked her. I can’t imagine it’s a particularly interesting story, and if it was I’m sure she would have volunteered it by now. At any rate, it’s been found, so I will return it tomorrow. I hope whoever put a hold on it will still read it, it’s a good book.

It is written by Harriett Shelton Dover, who was born on the Tulalip reservation in 1904. The story Harriett is telling is her own, but often, in order to tell her story, she must tell the story of the Native Americans as a culture, as a society. After all, Dover was born into a culture that was many thousands of years old, and was just beginning to disappear. 

Harriett discusses her upbringing, of learning to sew, and collecting food from the beaches and mountains around her. She talks about going down to visit her grandmothers (Dover’s grandmother’s sisters are Dover’s grandmothers as well) and learning the manners and ways expected of her as a growing woman. 

She mentions her sister who died of tuberculosis, which prompts a larger discussion of the fact that Native Americans were decimated by foreign diseases.  These diseases were all brought in by colonizing forces, and despite promises to do so, those foreigners failed to provide sufficient medical care. Or any at all. Harriett casually recounts the number of funerals she attended as a child, sometimes multiple burials at once, as well as the stories of girls who simply went home sick from school and never came back. 

The Tulalip Boarding school is given much attention, as Dover spent most of the year, most years of her childhood there. There they were severely punished for improprieties such as speaking their language. The youngest children were worked to the bone on a daily basis. They were severely malnourished. The health care they received often resulted in unnecessary deaths and pointless suffering. 

She speaks of the canoes in her childhood, the time spent on them herself, as well as the family that would come to visit from La Conner. She recounted her parents memories of using canoes to sneak away from their own reservations at night when they were young, it being entirely illegal for Natives to travel outside of their boundaries, but being desperate for the fish that beyond them. 

Dover speaks about the need for Native Americans to find work, once their ability to live off the land had first been made illegal, and then impossible. How no one but the hops farms out by Puyallup would hire Native Americans. She surmises that alcoholism spread in part as a response to a feeling of uselessness forced upon them. After hundreds of generations of relative peace and happiness, they had been forced into ineptness. Into dependence. Into humility. 

Dover speaks about how they fought back. She talks about Billy Frank Jr. and the others being arrested for fishing at places their families had fished for centuries. Dover speaks at length about the Boldt decision, which determined that Native Americans had a right, due to previous treaties, to half of the salmon caught within Washington State’s waters, which was half as much as they had a right to before colonization. She talks about the fact that salmon alone used to be their economy, and anyone willing to work would never go hungry. Dover talks about the ingenuity and hard work of her father, William Shelton, who served as chief in Tulalip, and established the Tulalip Improvement Club, which helped build roads, hosted “fairs” which sounded a lot like potlatches (potlatches, however, were illegal), as well as help with the cost of lawyers.

Colonialists deprived her people of its language, its religion, it art and its stories. They tore away their livelihoods, reduced their once unlimited freedom of travel and exploration to a dot on a map. Dover talks about the fact she could speak or understand a handful of languages growing up, as the Pacific Northwest was beyond cosmopolitan, it was truly a collection a nations, and the nations in the Pacific Northwest traded and commingled with people as far east as the Rockies and all the way down to the Sea of Cortez. All of this destroyed, and all of it destroyed by European colonizers. This is not a story in a history book, this is a story told by an old woman as she sits in her rocking chair. This happened to human beings, and the ramifications are being felt as we speak, in a million different ways, all over the country. Dover’s story is essential, not because it is enticing or engaging or beautifully crafted or anything else, though it is, at times, all of those things. It is essential because it is the truth, the uncomfortable, unfortunate, and tragic truth, told by a person who lived it. We cannot lose these stories.

So yeah, I really hope whoever had a hold on this book is still going to read it. Thank you for your patience. 

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