Sehome History

Coast Salish peoples have lived around Bellingham Bay for thousands of years. The tribes of the Salish Sea traveled widely, intermarried, and had varied connected languages and thriving cultures. The Lhaq’temish (today’s Lummi) lived around the mouth of the Nooksack, on the islands, and north into southern BC and were the first people to live in the neighborhood we now call Sehome. While many place names in Whatcom are anglicizations of Lummi names, Sehome is the only neighborhood in Bellingham that is named for an ancestor of the indigenous people of the Salish Sea.

As current residents of Sehome know, this area is blessed with a moderate climate and extraordinary geographical features including mountains, rivers, cascades and our inland sea. This abundance created a rich biodiversity that supported a large indigenous population. Their cultures are imbued with reverence for and dependence on the resources that surround them, especially salmon and cedar. This reverence is still seen in the artwork that current day Lummi are contributing to our neighborhood, in particular the large mural painted by Jason LeClair and Gretchen Leggitt on the N Forest St wall.

Contact between local native peoples and Spanish and British explorers sailing up the Pacific coast began to occur in the late 18th century. One such meeting of George Vancouver’s sailing vessel being met by Lummi in canoes was documented in Bellingham Bay in 1792 (William Bellingham was the accountant with the Royal Navy). European explorers did not arrive overland from the east until the earliest part of the 19th century. With those early explorers came fur trappers, looking to expand their territory. The Northwest Company controlled the fur trade in the Pacific Northwest starting in 1813, later taken over by the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) in 1821. Wherever the HBC went, the army or HBC built forts that served as trading posts. Throughout the Pacific Northwest, indigenous groups traded with the HBC over multiple generations.

These successive waves of contact between indigenous and European peoples had many significant effects. Particularly devastating was the introduction of smallpox. Smallpox pandemics started occurring starting in 1781 and devastated the various tribal groups in our region. Ongoing episodes of deadly outbreaks occurred until the mid-1800’s, which meant that the large local indigenous population documented by early explorers was greatly reduced, and some tribes were eliminated completely.

For multiple generations, indigenous groups attempted to coexist informally with the varied people and institutions that arrived in the region. Eventually, however, the devastation of their populations, combined with the arrival of soldiers, establishment of forts, influx of settlers and development of laws that directly affected indigenous people, made the Salish Sea tribes aware of the need to establish a formal agreement with this overwhelming colonizing power. More than twenty leaders, including Chow-its-hoot of the Lummi tribe, signed the treaty of Point Elliot in 1855. This treaty has had tremendous and far-reaching effects nationally and is the basis for our relations with the tribal nations in our area (see description of tribal law in the next section).

The first buildings in what we know as Sehome today would have been Lummi long houses by the bay. These long houses were centers for community life. One long house on Samish Island, built from cedar logs, was estimated to be 1200 feet long. In addition to creating these substantial, permanent buildings, indigenous groups also moved regularly to different sites at specific times during the year. They fished for salmon in a manner that was sustainable over thousands of years. They cared for the forest, harvesting trees for buildings that did not create systemic impacts. The original landscape has been completely altered by industrialization and is unrecognizable to us today.

Permanent white settlement around Bellingham Bay began in 1852, when the Lummi leader Chow-its-hoot gave permission to Henry Roeder and Russell Peabody (who traveled up from California) to build a sawmill at Whatcom Falls. ‘Whatcom’ is derived from a Nooksack word that means “noisy rumbling water” and the mill was sited to take advantage of the power from the falls. Two years later, a coal seam became the foundation of a mine in Sehome Hill. The mine opening was reported to be at Laurel and Railroad Ave. The original plat of the town of Sehome extended to the water and was built principally to house white workers at the mine. Both the sawmill and the mine employed indigenous workers, who lived with their families in longhouses.

The town called Sehome was platted and named by the mine supervisor, Edmund Fitzhugh after his wife Julia’s father Seya’whom. Seya’whom was S’kallam, but had moved to Samish Island to live with his wife’s people and assumed a leadership role there. The family later moved north to Sehome to be near Julia and a cousin Mary who was also married to Fitzhugh. Eventually the descendants of Julia and Mary moved to Orcas Island and the Lummi Reservation and descendants are enrolled members of the Lummi tribe.

The original plat named streets after local and State dignitaries, but many of the names were changed as the town grew and merged with the adjacent town of Whatcom in 1891 to become New Whatcom. The New Whatcom Normal School was opened on the hill in 1899 and was a teachers college housed in the building now called Old Main. The 1860 census counted 74 white men in Sehome, but the census did not count indigenous men, women or children at that time, so the town’s population was much larger than the estimate. At the height of mining activity, 100 men were employed. Evidence points to 80-90% of the white workers being married to indigenous women, so the number of indigenous people living in Sehome was certainly much larger that the white population at that time.

By 1903 the towns of Fairhaven and New Whatcom merged to become the city of Bellingham. The plat of the original town of Bellingham is roughly the area of parts of downtown, and what we call Sehome today. Many Victorian and craftsman home were built in Sehome starting in the 1890’s through the 1920’s. The booms and busts of the city brought waves of European and Asian settlers, and the Lummi people were pushed to live on the reservation established on the peninsula. The 1950’s brought interstate 99 which ran through Samish Way, and E. Maple St and the car culture reshaped the landscape again. Western Washington University grew to 15,000 students and began to change the home ownership of Sehome, with many homes becoming rental units for students. Today, a new housing boom is changing Sehome, and we are transitioning to a mix of high rise residential buildings especially around our Urban Villages – both the Samish Way Urban Village and the downtown Urban Village which are in the Sehome neighborhood. A longhouse is now being planned for the arboretum, and we hope that our stewardship of the land and the future changes in our neighborhood will honor the people that came before us, and their descendants today.

Wellman, Candace. Peace Weavers, Uniting the Salish Coast Through Cross-Cultural Marriages. WSU Press. 2017.
Smallpox in the Pacific Northwest: The First Epidemics. Boyd, Robert. T. Spring 1994 Portland State University Anthropology Faculty Publications and Presentations.

Legal Status and Rights of Tribes – James Detke

Federally recognized tribes in the United States have extensive legal and decision-making power. They are considered sovereign nations, meaning they have similar powers to regulate their internal affairs as federal and state governments do. Understanding this is key to acknowledging the importance tribes play in contemporary times, especially in Washington. Tribes are significant decision-makers in and have legal rights related to many issues today, including environmental regulation, land-use decisions, water rights, riparian protection, climate change, and other issues impacting the lives of all people. This extremely brief introduction to the legal status of tribes and the way they fit into Washington State government and decision-making will aid readers new to these subjects in understanding the significance and power of our neighbors.

The U.S. Government has a general trust responsibility towards federally recognized tribes stemming from the treaties tribes entered into with the U.S. Government. This trust responsibility means that it is the government’s responsibility to assure access to services required to protect and enhance tribal members’ well-being, economic vitality, and ability to self-govern. The U.S. government has continually upheld the self-determination of tribes since 1968, meaning that they have the right to establish any form of government compliant with the Bill of Rights, determine membership, tax and regulate, administer law and order, make decisions about their land and water resources, and many other rights. These rights are inherent to treaties. In combination, the treaty rights of tribes and the trust responsibility of the U.S. Federal Government mean that tribes are essential decision-makers and must be recognized and brought into all decisions which affect them and that governmental organizations must respect these facts.

In 1855, the Duwamish, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, Snohomish, Lummi, Skagit, Swinomish, and other tribes signed the Treaty of Point Elliott. Signers of the treaty from the Lummi tribe include Chow-its-hoot, Chief of the Lummi and other tribes; Seh-lek-qu, Sub-chief of the Lummi tribe; S’h’-cheh-oos, or General Washington, Sub-chief of the Lummi tribe; Whai-lan-hu, or Davy Crockett, Sub-chief of the Lummi tribe; She-ah-delt-hu, Sub-chief of Lummi tribe; Kwult-seh, Sub-chief of the Lummi tribe; S’hoolk-ka-nam, Sub-chief of the Lummi tribe; Ch-lok-suts, Sub-chief of the Lummi tribe; Kwull-et-hu, Lummi tribal member; Hwn-lah-lakq, or Thomas Jefferson, Lummi tribal member; Cht-simpt, Lummi tribal member; Tse-sum-ten, Lummi tribal member; Klt-hahl-ten, Lummi tribal member; and Kut-ta-kanam, or John, Lummi tribal member. This treaty is where most legal rights of these tribes originate from in U.S. law. Treaties are documents established between two sovereign nations and inherently acknowledge the sovereignty of each side. The Treaty of Point Elliott guaranteed all signatory tribes hunting and fishing rights and reservations. Treaties between the U.S. Government and Tribes have been interpreted as assigning many rights not explicitly outlined in the treaty, but rights to which both sides would have assumed they were granted and were granting at the time of signing. One important right which has been upheld in court cases is the right to fishing, interpreted as the right to 50% of the catch and the right to have salmon habitat sufficient for fish runs to take place. The powerful treaty rights of tribes in Washington and in North-West Washington will be hugely important to securing the future of our shared environment and resources.
The State of Washington and Tribes have generally worked in collaboration with each other due to the primarily aligned goals of these governmental bodies. Both sides acknowledge that tribal interests extend beyond the reservation and state interests extend into reservations. In Washington, the State has been focused on negotiating and collaborating with tribes rather than resorting to litigation since 1985 and has recognized tribal sovereignty since 1989 with the Centennial Accord. The Accord acknowledges that 26 federally recognized tribes within Washington have sovereignty and that the state wishes to establish government-to-government relationships with these tribes. The Accord was established between the governor and the tribes but asks all parts of the Washington government to treat tribes as sovereign nations. It is an important planning document that acknowledges the shared need to provide adequate services and deal with issues that are best solved together in a collaborative manner.

The Millennium Agreement, created at the 1999 Tribal and State Leaders’ Summit, is a collection of documents that expand upon the Centennial Accord. The Agreement outlines expectations for implementing the Accord in day-to-day operations within the State government. Within these documents, the tribes and States began to establish processes, structures, and protocols for actually implementing the Centennial Accord. The Accord called for each state agency to develop specific plans for how they will implement the ideas in the Centennial Accord into their operations. Due to this Agreement, Nearly every executive agency now has a tribal liaison that is responsible for understanding tribal interests, concerns, and rights for facilitating government-to-government dialogue and resolving potential conflicts. The Centennial Accord and Millennium Agreement have helped to acknowledge and formalize government-to-government relations and must be continually built upon in the future to adequately incorporate sovereign tribes into decisions that affect them and their members.

Tribal members and governments have been and will continue to be hugely important to Washington State and the lives of all people living on this land. As groups with extensive rights and powers, tribes are leading environmental movements, researching climate change impacts, developing services and housing for their members, planning for our future, protecting their rights, and so much more. As a neighborhood association, we are thankful for tribal members’ efforts to protect, expand, and use their rights and their dedication to stewarding the lands since time immemorial and share these resources with us in the current day.

Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs. Centennial Accord. nial-accord
Zaferatos, N. C. (2015). Planning the American Indian reservation: From theory to empowerment. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
Zaferatos, N. C. (2020). Washington Indian Tribes and the Growth Management Act: Toward Inclusionary Regional Planning. Urban Transitions Planning Studio, Western Washington University. Retrieved from ndian-Tribes-and-the-GMA-09162021