He said his race should be erased. Then he quietly preserved it. | KUOW News and Information

He said his race should be erased. Then he quietly preserved it.

Jan 25, 2017

Wayne Williams struggles to tell the story, because of his health. He speaks in bursts, between coughing fits and gulps of orange juice. 


But Williams wants to tell the story of his grandfather, William Shelton. It's why he allowed me at his bedside, in his simple room with its view of the blackberries out back, so that I would understand the role his grandfather played, along with a casino and the prosperity of a growing region, in healing a historic rift between the Tulalip Tribes and the City of Marysville. 

It’s quite an achievement when you consider what the Tulalip were up against. For one, there was the attitude of Marsyville, their neighbor. Williams said in his grandfather's time, Marysville residents didn’t want the Indians to come into town because they thought they “were all dirty and diseased.”

That attitude also found expression in official policies. Practicing native religion was outlawed. Ceremonial objects were confiscated and burned by agents of the U.S. government.

Assimilate. That was the message to Native Americans. Many Native Americans chafed at that.

So it was against his parents’ wishes when Williams' grandfather, William Shelton, ran away from home to join a boarding school.

“Actually, he paddled away” in a canoe, Williams said.

Young Shelton had heard a person could make marks on a page, send it away, and someone else on the other side of the world would be able to decipher the message. Shelton, who had been counseled by his elders to do something good for his people, saw how learning to write could help his people.

This 1932 Seattle Times photo shows the boarding school on the Tulalip reservation.
Credit Seattle Times archive via Hibulb Cultural Center

Later, Shelton became an employee of the school, even after the government took it over from the priests and turned it into a laboratory of its policies of assimilation.

In the early 20th century, kids at the school traded a life in tune with the seasons for a relentless schedule that began each morning at 5:30, when they were expected to have their beds made in time for morning drills. They were punished if heard using Lushootseed words, and were prevented from seeing their families more than three times in the summer to limit their exposure to traditional ways.

Shelton used his skills as a writer and talker to negotiate for his people. He leveraged his friendships with people in power to secure rights to build a longhouse on the reservation, at a time when longhouses were routinely burned by the government. But Shelton's longhouse was allowed, as long as it was for educational, not religious, purposes.

Shelton believed that success for his people depended on winning equality for his people in white society. In that respect, he supported the goal of assimilation. In 1932, when William had become a chief of the Snohomish tribe, he went so far as to tell The Seattle Times, “Our race must vanish so that our spirit may live.”

But at the same time, he seems to have known that assimilation was not enough.

“He felt that a way of life was passing away,” said his grandson, who in that same 1932 article was shown in a photograph watching his grandfather carve a traditional story pole. Shelton wasn’t one to just sit still when he felt something wasn’t right.

A young Wayne Williams watches his grandfather William Shelton carve a story pole (misidentified as a Totem Pole) in this 1932 Seattle Times photo.
Credit Seattle Times archive via Hibulb Cultural Center

Once, when a man in Stanwood killed a horse Shelton had just bought, Shelton nearly choked the man to death, then hid in a cornfield until his pursuers gave up.

“He was a very loving man,” said Williams of his grandfather, “but you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him.”

Williams paused in his story, to drink some orange juice for energy. You can see a little of his grandfather’s rebelliousness in him, too, when he leans back into his pillow and howls just to confuse and irritate the little Chihuahua his caregiver brings along with her.

“I like to irritate him,” he said, “the little shit."

Wayne Williams, in the home where his grandfather hid away Tulalip artifacts from U.S. government agents in order to preserve his culture.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

The same stubborn streak led his grandfather to begin stashing native artifacts. Shelton filled his home with traditional baskets, carvings and tools. In a shed in his yard, he stashed cedar canoes.

“He spent a lifetime gathering them,” remembered Williams.  He said his grandfather wanted to preserve the Tulalip way of life for the future, “so that they could see that we as a people had a valuable life too. Not just a bunch of dumbheads.” 

Williams’s grandfather died in 1938, after a life trying to increase respect for the tribes. Use of ceremonial artifacts would remain illegal until 1978.

The house, and its treasures, passed from generation to generation, finally coming to Williams, who protected the artifacts as his grandfather had. “I felt they were important,” said Williams, “the history of our people.”

Over time, the region’s growth and some crucial legal decisions helped improve things for the Tulalip tribes. It began, in a way, with the increasing value of tribal land along Interstate 5.

Mel Sheldon, who said he’s probably not related to William Shelton, is the current Tulalip Chairman. He said the Tulalip leased a big piece of land to Boeing, which helped.

“When you had that type of cash income coming in, it did have an effect. It helped the tribe through the years.”

A bingo hall came in 1983. In 1988, the federal government recognized the rights of tribes to build casinos on tribal land. Over time, they won rights to include more kinds of gaming.

“With the gaming, we’ve become an economic engine,” Sheldon said.

Mel Sheldon (probably no relation to William Shelton, he says) is current Tribal Chairman of the Tulalip.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Today, the Tulalip tribe is the fifth largest employer in Snohomish County. The jobs the casino and hotel created helped erase some of the remaining bad blood between the tribe and the town. The money didn’t hurt either. Money spent in Marysville, and money spent on programs to help the Tulalip help its people.

But the money helped in another way too. The tribe would build a museum called the Hibulb Cultural Center.

“It was a dream. A dream for a long time,” Sheldon said. “Not only for our members, but for a greater public to come and see us and get to know what Tulalip tribes is.”

The museum hadn’t opened yet when it received an invitation to check out some interesting stuff in the bushes behind Williams’ house.

Tribal member Tessa Campbell had just been appointed as a curator at the museum when she made the trip to Williams’s house. Where a wooden shed had rotted away, she found a 40-foot cedar canoe covered in blackberry stickers.

“I felt like an archeologist must feel when they find something in the ground,” said Campbell. “It was just over and over again, we’d cut more sticker bushes and, ah ha, another canoe.”

Tessa Campbell, senior curator at the Hibulb Cultural Center, next to a cedar canoe saved by William Shelton many years ago.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Later, she’d be invited back to collect the items Shelton had squirreled away in his house. What Campbell found at that house became the highlight of her career and formed a big part of the museum’s Tulalip collection. Much of it still sits in a back room, awaiting restoration, including a massive collection of Shelton’s own carvings, whose distinctive style influences carvers today.

Campbell thinks about Shelton a lot. In a way, she’s completing the work of his original project, when, by paddling away from home, he sought the tools to help communicate the value of his culture.

“Every time I’m on a microphone I feel a connection to him,” Campbell said, “because it’s what he strived to do. He wanted to share our culture with the world.”

Ruth and William Shelton seen with their children Harriette, Robert in front. The older child is another relative, Marjorie.
Credit Hibulb Cultural Center

Today, tribal members are welcome in Marysville.

Marysville historian Ken Cage says it’s painful to remember the past and how white settlers treated the Tulalip.

“What we did was bad,” he said. Cage is planning a separate museum of Marysville history. It’s built, and they’re filling up the space now, hoping to open later this year. Cage wants to give the Tulalip some space in the Marysville museum too, so Marysville can appreciate how much things have changed from the days when U.S. government agents confiscated traditional Tulalip artifacts.

Ken Cage at the Marysville Historical Society's new museum, opening later this year.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

“Our agents couldn’t understand why they could have such respect for a cedar tree,” said Cage. “That’s one of the things that made it hard to bridge the gap. And that’s what William Shelton did, with all of his work, was to teach us, the white people, principles like that and how important they were.”

Over the years, the region around the casino has grown denser. Casino business continues to improve, and relations keep getting better. The tribe and the city of Marysville just completed a big project together, restoring part of the Snohomish River delta.

Tulalip member Wayne Williams is glad he lived long enough to see the tribe’s fortunes reverse.

“It got better,” he said, “They respect us now. We’re not a bunch of dumbheads.”

Joshua McNichols can be reached at jmcnichols@kuow.org. Have a story idea? Use our story pitch form.