The Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe has depended upon shellfish as a source of food and for trade or income for thousands of years. Clams, crab, oysters, shrimp and many other species were readily available for harvest year around. The ease with which large amounts could be harvested, cured, and stored for later consumption made shellfish an important source of nutrition. Shellfish has also played a central role in tribal gatherings – from naming ceremonies and funerals to elder honorings and potlatches. During these ceremonies shellfish was steamed over a bed of white-hot rocks, or cooked on sticks over a fire. The evidence of this rich harvest remains in the shell piles – or “kitchen” – of coastal native village sites found along the shores of Puget Sound.
Jayden Fulton and his dog in Port Gamble Bay
Treaty Shellfish Rights
In 1855, the federal government signed a treaty with the S’Klallam Tribes in a desire to procure land for an ever-growing flood of settlers to the region. This treaty was one of series of treaties between the western Washington Tribes and the federal government in the mid 1850s. In exchange for peaceful relinquishment of tribal lands, the tribes reserved in the treaty the right to harvest fish --- including shellfish – from all their usual and accustomed areas:
“The right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians, in common with all citizens of the United States: and of erecting temporary houses for the purposes of curing; together with the privilege of hunting and gathering roots and berries on open and unclaimed lands. Provided, however, that they shall not take shell-fish from any beds staked or cultivated by citizens”
- Treaty of Point No Point, Jan 26, 1855
Clamming was dominated by the tribes well into the 1920s, but as land continued to be purchased by white settlers, “no trespassing” signs began appearing on beaches. The tribes were slowly excluded from their traditional shellfish harvest areas. Tribal efforts to have the federal government’s treaty promised kept began in the early 1900s.
On December 20, 1994, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Rafeedie upheld the Tribe’s position. He ruled that the tribes have the right to take up to 50 percent of the harvestable shellfish on western Washington beaches, except shellfish from artificial beds. “A treaty is not a grant of rights to the Indians, but a grant of rights from the,” Rafeedie wrote in his decision, adding that the United States government made a solemn promise to the tribes in the treaties that they would have a permanent right to fish as they always had. The species covered in Judge Rafeedie’s ruling include clams, oysters, crab, shrimp, geoduck, sea urchins, and sea cucumber.
Since the Rafeedie Decision, the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe has focused efforts on fulfilling the basic requirements for the management and enforcement of the shellfish resource. This Tribe along with other western Washington Tribes has shouldered additional management responsibilities to properly co-manage the shellfish resource with the state.
Brandon Wellman catching crab to feed his family
“When the Tide is Out, The Table is Set”
The Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe still relies heavily on ceremonial and subsistence harvest of clams, oysters, crab and shrimp. The reservation is located along east side of Port Gamble Bay. Harvest of clams, oysters and crabs from the reservation tidelands helps make up a large percentage of the tribal diet for members which live on the reservation. The horse clam and geoduck are favorite species for clam chowder. In addition, tribal members often harvest oysters, manila and native littlenecks along with cockles for clam bakes at tribal ceremonies and private social gatherings.
Tribal members are also allowed to harvest shellfish of public beaches such as State and County Parks. Additional harvest agreements have been reached with private landowners such as Pope Resources and the U.S. Navy at Bangor and Indian Island.