Nisqually People and the River

"Every river has its people."

Stillaguamish saying

For generations the Nisqually Indian people lived and thrived in the Nisqually River Basin. They occupied the entire watershed from Its marine waters to the foothills of the great mountain they called Ta-co-bet. They used different parts of the watershed as determined by altitude and changes in the season in their continuing quest for food. Most of the Nisqually people were concentrated in the lower watershed where many permanent winter villages were located. During spring and summer months they dug camas bulbs in the prairie lands and gathered berries in the woodlands. During summer and early fall they ranged upriver to hunt the deer, elk and bear and gather huckleberries. From the early spring runs to the late winter catches, they netted salmon, their most basic food item. Last but not least, the sandy saltwater beaches of lower Puget Sound provided the Nisquallies with seasonal clams and oysters.

The Nisqually people have always been a fishing people. The salmon has not only been the mainstay of their diet but the foundation of their culture as well. Because their ties to the Nisqually River have run deep throughout their lengthy and continuing history, it is of special value to examine their relationship with the river and its tributaries. Cecelia Svinth Carpenter, Indian historian and enrolled member of the Nisqually Indian Tribe, has conducted extensive historical research and written numerous articles and books on the history of her tribe. She has written the following narrative especially for this educator’s guide:

Arrival of the People

The Nisqually Indian people have occupied the lands of the Nisqually River Basin for thousands of years. The oldest known village is over 5,000 years old. The ancestors of the present Nisqually people are believed to have migrated northward from the Great Basin at a time when that area became dry and the neighboring mountains began to shake. They traveled north to a point in eastern Washington from there they could view a toll mountain peak rising in the western sky, the mountain they would later call To-co-bet, the mountain called Ta-ho-ma by the Yakama people.

They crossed the mountain on its southern flank on a pass that led them into a forested paradise dotted with alpine meadows and freshwater streams. Their first stop was on Squaitz Creek, now called Skate Creek, and there they established their first permanent village. It wasn’t long before they viewed the mighty rushing waters of a glacier-fed river they would later call the Nisqually. They followed it westward down through a canyon, through heavy mixed forests and across the prairie lowlands, to the point where it emptied into the marine waters they would soon call the "whulge" but today is known as Puget Sound.

The Name

The Indian people gave the name "squalli" to the grasses that grew in the vast lowlands prairies. Because their custom was to call the river by a geographical or natural identification, they called the mighty stream the Squalli River and called themselves the "Squalli-absch", meaning "the people of the grass country, the people of the river." Throughout time, the name Squalli-absch, evolved to the Anglicized name of Nisqually.

Winter Villages

Besides the village at Squaitz Creek, the Nisquallies established winter villages at Elbe and Mashel. Then, skipping the more densely forested area that stretched from Chop Creek, and passing Tanwax and Murray Creeks, they established themselves on both sides of the mouth of Yelm Creek. From Yelm Creek to the delta, there were many Nisqually villages, with two favoring the quieter tributary streams of Muck Creek and Mitsukwei Creek, and all within easy traveling to the nearby salt water beaches.

Reaching the delta, the Nisqually people spread out to settle on the She-nah-num or McAllister Creek, and at the mouth of Sequalitchew Creek. Spreading to the north and into the prairie lands, villages were established on Gravelle Creek, at the southern tip of Nisqually Lake and upstream on the Muck Creek. It is believed that some of the population from Muck Creek moved over to Clover Creek. Other villages, adjacent to the river basin, were considered to be associated or closely related.

Criteria for selecting a site for a permanent winter village was carefully adhered to. The first priority was to be located by a freshwater source. The second requirement was to provide safety from the natural elements, in which case a cove located above a floodplain with a solid earthen backdrop for protection from winter winds would be favored. The third concern was for safety from enemy raids from northern tribes, which entailed a good lookout position and several backdoor escape routes. Lastly, but one for which any site in the basin qualified, was that the village should be located dose to several food sources.

A Nisqually winter village usually consisted of from two to three cedar plank buildings, each measuring about 30 feet wide and as much as 100 feet in length. The houses were positioned in such a manner as to rebuff the particular wind or weather patterns indigenous to that site. Each structure could house up to as many as eight separate or related families depending on the size of the building. It was desirous to limit the population of each village to control the spread of epidemic illnesses.

The houses were constructed with cedar slobs fashioned from logs cut from huge western red cedar trees, split into boards with a stone or wooden wedge and carefully planed to a smooth surface with a sharp-edged cutting tool called an adze. A framework of house poles, notched and grooved, provided a stable foundation for the house. One end of each cedar plank was placed in a horizontal position in a ditch dug around the perimeter of the house, raised to an upright position and tied to the framework with a strong rope made from cedar bark. The ditch was then filled with dirt and rocks to hold the plank wallboards firmly in place. Cedar planks were laid across the gabled roof but were not permanently attached, which allowed the boards to be moved aside so that smoke from the inside cooking fires could escape. A long pole was kept handy to "raise the roof" for that purpose. Roof boards could be laid in a vertical position as well as in a horizontal position.

There were door openings at each end of the building over which a wide cedar slob was placed in a slanted position on the inside of the opening, allowing for the occupants to enter or exit while keeping out a direct wind current. There were no windows in the winter home. If light was desired, roof boards could be moved aside.

The inside area was marked off into separate living quarters with each family group having its own cooking fire and wall space. Two rows of shelves lined the inside walls. The bottom shelf, more like a platform and the wider of the two, served as a bench by day and sleeping bed by night. The space beneath the bed was used for storage of the family’s personal items. The upper shelf was used for the storage of dried food items. Smoked salmon hung from the ceiling cross beams. Cattail matting lined the inside walls to keep out winter drafts and covered portions of the dirt floor. Soft cattail matting and animal skins adorned the bed. For the most part, the floors were just dirt worn smooth from constant wear. All in all, the Nisqually winter home was a comfortable place in which to live.

Summer Homes

The Nisqually summer houses were temporary structures which were easily transported and quickly constructed as the Indian family moved about in their seasonal trek for food. Bundles of cattail matting, tightly woven to shed the rain, were carried from place to place. Upon arriving at the summer berry or root digging spot, long slender poles were cut and fashioned into a tipi-type frame and tied together at the top. The cattail matting was unrolled and hung on the structure in a horizontal spiral manner. Sometimes the poles formed a shed-like structure with a slanted roof and mats draped over the top and down the back and sides. The front was usually left open if weather permitted. Fir or cedar boughs could be used to cover the roof if matting was not available. Even an A-frame covered with boughs could serve as emergency shelter. The frames were usually left in place when the family returned home so they could be used again.


The clothing of the Nisqually people was simple and effective. During the warm summer months clothing requirements were few. The men wore only a buckskin breech cloth and the ladies wore but a skirt with a soft cedar bark breech cloth underneath. A few extra wraps were sufficient for the mild fall weather but the winter cold meant warm wraps must be added. The rain, which was heaviest in the spring, must be dealt with at any time. Cedar bark garments were used to shed the rain, and buckskin garments were used for warmth. Other than a few ornaments, these two materials could build a Nisqually wardrobe.

The cedar tree not only furnished the planks for the winter house and the flatbottom river canoe but portions of its bark was carefully removed in long strips to be used to make clothing. Done correctly, the life of the tree was not damaged. The bark was cut into smaller strips, sliced into layers, then dried and stored for later use. When unpacked during the winter months, the bark could be soaked and pounded until it was soft and pliable, and woven into capes, skirts, hats and robes. Most of these clothing items were for the ladies.

Most of the men’s clothing came from animal skins and furs. Wearing next-to-nothing during warm weather, the men donned long-sleeved buckskin shirts and matching leggings in winter. Their buckskin capes were made with the animal fur worn on the inside. Fur caps sometimes replaced the conical cedar bark hats. Going barefoot was not uncommon but moccasins were worn by both sexes. They were made from buckskin and tied with strap around the ankle. For winter wear they were lined with fur.

The children’s wardrobe was a miniature replica of the adults clothing items. Both the cedar bark blanket and assorted fur pieces were used for the baby’s cradle. Diaper material came from soft dried grasses and mosses collected on summer harvest trips. When a garment was torn or worn thin, it was mended, but when it became too soiled to be washed off in the nearby stream, a new garment was made.


Wood, stone and bone, as well as plant and animal items, were used by the Nisqually Indian people to make all of the various articles needed for cooking, eating, hunting, fishing and woodworking. Stones were fashioned into cutting tools, wedges, daggers, spears, digging points, hammers, anchors, food grinders and arrowheads. Animal bones and horns were used to create children’s toys, needles, spoons and ladles. Wood, being the most plentiful material, was carved, chipped, chiseled and burned to be made into plates, spoons, boxes, paddles, herring rakes, fish dubs, hair combs, toys and games. These lists are not complete, of course. Almost every person was considered an expert in working with at least one type of material. The canoe maker or the fish trap builder, well-respected for their special talent, usually wasn’t expected to do anything but that type of work during the winter months.

Baskets came in several sizes and shapes and were made from an assortment of materials. There were open-meshed baskets for carrying dams, watertight coiled baskets for cooking, and large twined baskets for storing food. There were baskets for picking berries and for digging roots and smaller baskets to hold a variety of items. Basket materials consisted of cedar bark, cedar tree roots, spruce roots, grasses, rushes and cattails. Basket designs or imbrications were made from stems of the maidenhair fern, wild cherry bark or bear grass. Nettle fibers and nettle roots were the favorite materials used to make twine and rope, fish nets and duck snares. Animal intestines were saved to be made into useful storage containers for oil products. Nothing in Indian country was wasted.

A Bountiful Harvest

The Nisqually Indian people were fish people. The salmon was their main source of food. It was from the Nisqually River and its tributaries that they obtained as many as five species of salmon, each returning to the river at different times of the year to spawn. There was the Chinook, the pink or Humpback, the silver or Coho, the dog or Chum, and the red or Sockeye. Steelhead, a seagoing trout, was also caught.


Most fish traps, or weirs, were built in the slower, more shallow tributary creeks, although historical records cite that some fish traps were built in the turbulent river itself. The fish traps in the smaller streams consisted of two picket-like fences made of alder and maple stretched across the stream, allowing only a small space for the fish to enter. Trapped in the space between the fences, they could be easily dipped out in nets. The river fish traps were balanced on tripod poles and were more complex due to the forceful currents in the larger streams.

Salmon could be roasted, steam-baked, dried or smoked. They could be cut into filets and roasted on sticks beside the cooking fire to be ready at dinner or placed on racks and dried and/or smoked for a longer period of time before being packed and stored for winter use. When later unpacked, the dried fish was usually soaked in warm water to soften the fibers. Smoked fish was a favorite food for travelers, as were pemmican cakes made of powered dry fish mixed with animal fat and powered berries.

The marine waters of Puget Sound provided an additional source of salmon as well as a good supply of herring and flounders. The sandy saltwater beaches offered clams, oysters, geoducks, mussels and barnacles. Most shellfish were roasted in an earthen steam-baking pit, the same method used for cooking the camas bulbs.

Camas bulbs were also an important part of the Nisqually meal. Growing abundantly in the vast prairies which bordered both sides of the lower portion of the Nisqually River, they were harvested in the spring and early summer with a forked digging stick made with an ironwood handle and bone points. Earthen steam baking pits were constructed out on the prairies where the family had set up a summer camp. The pit was constructed by digging a hole about five feet deep and lining it with small rocks. A fire was built on the bottom to warm the rocks. Food items, moistened and wrapped in large leaves, were then placed on the warm rocks and covered with a layer of boughs and dirt. A fire was built over the top and kept burning for several days. A stick left extending through the dirt could be removed so additional water could be added if needed. When the bulbs were cooked through, they were laid out on racks to dry before being stored. The secret of storage was to be sure that all moisture was extracted from the food items so that they would not become moldy.

A variety of berries was picked in the bushy lowlands and mountain foothills. Red huckleberries, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and salal berries were picked and dried on special racks built over a low burning campfire. Salmon berries, being too mushy to dry, were eaten fresh or made into juice. Hazelnuts and acorns added another dimension to the Nisqually food list, as aid an assortment of new tender sprouts such as found on cattail and fern plants. The greens were brought in and blanched in hot water in the watertight cooking baskets. The water was heated by placing hot rocks in the cooking baskets and replacing them until the contents were cooked. Herbal plants were picked and dried to be used to combat certain illnesses.


Deer, elk and bears were hunted in the woodlands. While a bow and arrow was sufficient to bring down a small animal, these larger animals had to be caught in snares laid along the animal trail. Bears could be captured by digging a pit and covering it with a layer of branches and rocks. Birds and ducks were caught in special nets stretched between two poles.

The Nisqually people knew the season and place where all of their food items could be obtained. From early spring to late fall groups of family members traveled to their favorite spots, set up camp, picked the produce and prepared it for use during the long winter months while the earth slept. Never did the Nisqually disturb the earth to plant a crop. Instead they accepted the bounty of the natural world and in the winter sang their ceremonial songs of praise and thankfulness for a good harvest and issued an invitation for a bountiful season to come.


The Nisquallies depended heavily on the river, not only because it was the home of the salmon, but also because freshwater was essential to their health and well-being. Water was used for drinking, cooking and bathing and a variety of domestic, recreational and spiritual uses. The village was always established within a short distance of a freshwater source. Personal hygiene habits included a daily bath in the nearby stream when the weather permitted. Certain berries were used for soaps and shampoos. Bark and dried ferns were used for toweling and buffing the skin.

Clothes were washed in the stream with large stones serving as washboards. Utensils and soiled dishes were also carried outside to be washed. If a food item needed washing, it was placed in an open-meshed basketbag and rinsed in the creek. Water needed for cooking, however, was carried to the family hearth in a watertight basket and dipped out with a ladle. Hands were washed before and after a meal by dipping fingers in a water basket-bowl passed around for that purpose. Water was seldom consumed during a meal.

Water played an important port in the recreational life of the village members. Canoe races were carried on between individuals of the tribe as well as between tribal groups at get-together festivities. Every member of the family learned how to swim and the children spent many happy hours playing in the creek as they learned to swim and manage a canoe. The Nisqually River served as a highway to connect the many villages established on or near its banks, and recognizing the heavy forests that lined the shores of Puget Sound, it was often more expedient to send a messenger by canoe than a runner through the forest.

The river canoe was a flat-bottom, shovel-nose dugout canoe which was poled instead of paddled, while the salt water vessel was constructed with a sharp bow and stem to ride the rough waves sometimes found in the waters of Puget Sound.

Lastly, water contained spiritual powers. The significance of the steam bath and the subsequent bathing during purification rites denoted added strength and energy. The vision quest requirement that it must take place beside a moving stream expressed cleanliness of body to match the spiritualness of the occasion. Moving water was believed to be an energy force. Certain spring-fed streams were thought to have medicinal values used in curing, and were respected as sacred places and carefully protected for, indeed, the water did have curing qualities.


The world of the Nisqually was centered in the Nisqually River Basin. The river which flowed like an 80-mile long ribbon through the heart of the basin was their lifeline. Without the river and the mountain from which the glacier-fed river originated, the people knew that they would perish. And so, as would be expected, a very intricate web of togetherness developed between the people, the river, the mountain, the land, the climate, the salmon, the animals and the plants. All were held together by an inner consciousness or spiritual awareness that found its expression in the everyday actions, words, songs, and dances of the Nisqually Indian people.

It was believed that the Great Creator, the Sagalie Tyee, who created all forms of life did not breathe breath and spirit into humans alone but had bestowed this great gift to all living things. Man alone had the speaking voice to extol and give thanks. It was believed that the salmon spirit as the deer spirit existed to provide themselves as food for man. For this privilege man must learn how to capture and utilize each species, never wasting, always thrifty and ever thankful for each item taken for food.

And so it was that the Nisqually observed certain ceremonials such as the vision quest taken by the young at the time of puberty to find a spirit companion and the winter spirit dances at which time the individual sang his special song to his spirit power. All festivities were spiritual expressions to the Great Spirit.

Other Topics

There are several areas of the Nisqually traditional history that are too extensive to discuss hereto but can be found in other manuscripts. Topics could include the extended family, kinship ties, Nisqually legends and myths, oral language, basket making, canoe construction, buckskin tanning, tribal government, burial practices, trade, Chinook Jargon, neighboring tribes and many others.

Closing Remarks

This article has been written to convey to the classroom teacher the resourcefulness of a group of people who lived in the Nisqually River Basin for thousands of years before the first foreigners came to these shores. When one stops to think about the ingenuity and inventiveness these people displayed in utilizing everything that nature provided to meet their basic needs, it would seem that they should have first place in the study of the Nisqually River Basin in your classroom presentation.

In teaching Nisqually traditional history let the teacher be mindful that the descendants of these Nisqually Indian people described herein continue to live in the Nisqually River Basin. Please convey to your students that the Nisqually people have been here for thousands of years, that they are still here and will continue to be here. Although they live on a reduced portion of their traditional land through which flows but five miles of their beloved river, they continue to revere the whole river and entire land area as their ancestors did. Today they share the responsibility for the well-being of the Nisqually River and the Nisqually River Basin with several other user groups as they continue in their vigilance as guardians of their namesake. For they remain, as of old, "the Squalli-absch, the people of the prairie grass, the people of the river."

Additional Materials by Cecelia Svinth Carpenter

They Walked Before: Indians of Washington State, Washington State Historical Society, 1977. Reprint in 1988 by Tahoma Research Service.

Leschi: Last Chief of the Nisquallies, Heritage Quest, Orting WA, 1986. Reprinted from 1976.

Fort Nisqually: A Documented History of Indian and British Interaction, Tahoma Research Service, Tacoma WA, 1986.

Historic Perspectives of the Nisqually Tribal Water Resources, unpublished, Nisqually Tribal Library, Olympia WA or Tahoma Research Service, Tacoma WA.

Where The Waters Begin: The Traditional Nisqually History of Mount Rainier, Northwest Interpretive Association, Seattle WA, 1994.

The Trouble Waters of Medicine Creek, Masters Thesis on Nisqually-Puyallup Fishing Rights. Pacific Lutheran University Library, Tacoma WA, 1971.

Other Nisqually Related Books

Haeberlin, Hermann and Erna Gunther, The Indians of Puget Sound, University of Washington Press, 1930.

Smith, Marian, The Puyallup-Nisqually, Columbia University Press, 1940.

Clark, Ella, Indians Legends of the Pacific Northwest, University of California Press, 1971.

Barnett, H.G., Indian Shakers, Southern Illinois University Press, 1972.

(From: The Living River: A Guide to the Nisqually River Basin 1996) Used with permission

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