First at the Table
Updated: Feb 1
‘Our Fisherman, Our Guardian’ unveiled at Austin Park at txʷaalqəł Estuary By Rachel Kelly | Photo by Joe Loya
In September, on the edge of the Gig Harbor waterfront at Austin Park at txʷaalqəł Estuary, the 14-foot “Our Fisherman, Our Guardian” was unveiled and blessed in a ceremony led by tribal elders that included a verbal blessing of the finished artistry, dancing, drumming, and the arrival of an ocean-going canoe. The ceremony was a culmination of partnerships, the most imperative being that of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians who designed the blessing ceremony to honor the first inhabitants of the Gig Harbor Peninsula.
The project began with the work of local anthropologist Dr. Linda Pitcher, who worked extensively with the Puyallup Tribe of Indians to document the history of the Squababsh Band. Her extensive research on the lives of indigenous people here in the Gig Harbor Peninsula, before the arrival of the white man, sparked conversations between her and the Gig Harbor residents.
In 2014, retired school principal Gary Williamson assembled and led a “honoring committee” in support of Pitcher’s work. The honoring committee consisted of Dr. Pitcher, Dawn Stanton, who is the City Historic Preservation Officer, Nick Markovich and Tina Shoemaker of the Kiwanis Club, and Charlee Glock-Jackson of the City Arts Commission. “The (honoring) committee worked with the City Works Department to secure the extensive permitting required for the shoreline placement of the completed work on Austin Park at txʷaalqəł Estuary,” says Shoemaker. Their hard work paid off in a true partnership between Gig Harbor and the First Nation. To truly honor the first peoples, it was essential that the voice of the local tribal nations was consulted first. Throughout the process, Dr. Pitcher worked closely with the Puyallup Tribe of Indians to consult them on their wishes. The result was a commemoration of the area's first peoples through the 14-foot carving of “Our Fisherman, Our Guardian.”
The carving itself was envisioned and carved by Quinault Nation President Guy Capoeman, načaktuah. He responded to a request for native carvers throughout the Northwest with a proposal. His was chosen by the Puyallup Nation in conjunction with the honoring committee for his vision. Capoeman is quoted by the Puyallup Tribal News as speaking at the blessing ceremony: “The ancestors that fished in these waters right here, and what they saw and what they contributed to their families and this village. I thought long and hard about that, that these folks were our guardians. The fishermen were the ones that saw everything that was going on, everything that was coming into this place. I thought that that image would have to be a reflection of what I saw.” The finished work is a realization of this vision.
Recognition, reclamation and education is a vital part of restoration between two peoples. The active efforts on part of the city and its residents to honor the native peoples has not been previously done. The unveiling and blessing of the carving is part of a larger effort of recognition meant to honor the original inhabitants of ancestral lands. As efforts continue to bring about reclamation, communication is a key component. Restoration cannot be achieved if everyone isn’t at the table. Thankfully, inviting the Puyallup Tribe of Indians was the first step of the honoring committee.
Jennifer Keating, a Gig Harbor Land Use planner and Puyallup Tribe member was reported by the Puyallup Tribal News as saying, “There’s been this old thought that when you teach tribal history out there, you are replacing Scandinavian history, and that’s just not reality. Native history is Washington state history. We can no longer look at it as an option to teach that history—it is history.”
Now that history is on full display in the form of a majestic 14-foot carving in front of the pristine waterfront.
As Gig Harbor makes continued efforts to honor the ancestral peoples, it grows in a mindset of inclusion. One that strives to listen to its neighbors and learn from its past. The honor bestowed on the first peoples will no doubt result in a respect for the land and the people who carefully fostered its health. Land that isn’t just a source of income or sustenance but held in respect as being a partner in our overall well-being. With respect and honor of the original inhabitants, we open a door to a greater understanding and community, one that benefits everyone.
May the unveiling of “Our Fisherman, Our Guardian” be one of many such efforts to bring the native peoples first to the table to join in on the discussions concerning ancestral lands and the environment in and around Gig Harbor.