Screencap of Russel's presentation

‘The land we stand on’ with Russel Barsh

The islands may be marketed as pristine and untouched by human hands, however, Kwiáht Director Russel Barsh says the San Juans have generations of human intervention.

“[The islands are] hardly untouched by human hands, we are the product of a very long history of human occupation and human enjoyment of this landscape,” he said. “The evidence is everywhere.”

Barsh presented “The Land We Stand On” as part of the San Juan Island Library’s Know Your Islanders online series on Dec. 7.

“Russel Barsh has done so many programs for the San Juan Island Library, frankly I’ve lost count,” event host Boyd Pratt said. “He’s just a great presenter and I really appreciate both his effort and Kwiáht’s to be here and give these sort of presentations.”

Everything from ancient anchor stone and shell middens to the very vegetation in the islands is an indication that humans have shaped the area’s ecology for millennia, Barsh explained.

“It’s very clear that the islands are littered with evidence of ancient human use,” Barsh said. “Our plant communities have the fingerprints of thousands of years of human activity.”

Barsh noted peat core studies his team has performed on Lopez dating back to more than 7,000 years ago show evidence of human interaction with the ancient island environment. Embedded in the wetlands is evidence suggesting changes in the landscape and activities of humans who have lived here, he said.

Records from early scientists, as well as explorers, artists and photographers paint a picture of life in the islands from the advent of the Euro-American occupation approximately 160 years ago.

“Much of what we need to do is be careful with our inferences about the past when we have such rich evidence of the way things have been and the way they’ve changed,” Barsh said. “Perhaps we need to pay more attention to the physical evidence of this as we move forward with plans to try to restore, recover, recreate the landscapes of the past.”

In his lecture, Barsh focused on three topics: forestry and forest management, cultivation and agriculture and wildlife harvesting. The broad topics are critical to understanding ecology, he said.


“People were very careful with their forests before Europeans arrived,” Barsh said.

In the islands, “monumental” statues, called geh-gun, carved from cedar stood sentinel, greeted visitors and traders. Barsh likened the figure to the Statue of Liberty.

“The villages themselves were massive constructions of cedar — thousands and thousands of split cedar planks,” he said. “This was a massive draw on large, old mature cedar trees in the woods around here in the islands.”

There were approximately 12-15 villages containing roughly 150-200 houses when the Europeans arrived, Barsh explained.

“This is not a trivial drawdown of resources,” he said. “People needed a lot of very, very large cedar trees in the vicinity of good village locations.”

Good village locations, Barsh continued, had plenty of freshwater, clam beds and was a defensible space. Boats were also important to the survival of Coast Salish peoples. A lot of cedar went into the production of boats, he added.

Sails of boats were made of plant material, but not of cotton, which Europeans brought with them, Barsh said, they were made of cattail mats, stitched together with nettles. Cattails were also used to weave baskets.

“Basically everything was contained in baskets,” Barsh said. “If we think in material terms and ecological terms, Coast Salish society here in the islands and the surrounding mainland required a tremendous amount of materials.”

Western red cedar was absolutely central to the entire society, Barsh explained. It was used for building everything from houses to boats. Douglas fir was used for fuel for heating and cooking while willows, nettles and cattails were for marine cordage, nets for catching fish and birds and sails and tents.

“People were not just cutting a tree now and then; they were harvesting on a very large scale and in a way that’s a different algorithm than contemporary logging,” Barsh said, adding Europeans focused on Douglas fir and not so much cedar. “[For Coast Salish peoples,] cedar was the fundamental source of all of the major structures that made up everyday life.”

A controversial forest management tool is fire, he said.

“Fire was used to do underbrush clearing here. There are lots of oral accounts,” Barsh said.

Fire was used to clear underbrush and not used to remove full-grown living trees. When Europeans came, he continued, they either cut or burned trees whole.

“Instead of using fire to clean out the underbrush, you use fire to remove the remaining wood after you’ve logged everything else,” Barsh said. “We’ve got a completely different relationship with forests now that creates a completely different landscape.”


Though the stories were told for generations, it wasn’t until recently that archeology validated the Coast Salish peoples’ history of modifying shorelines in order to produce food.

“It’s building substrates that are ideal for large-scale production of shellfish in the substrate,” Barsh explained.

The Coast Salish peoples would build an artificial jetty out of rocks building and intertidal salt marsh.

“It was seen but not appreciated even by early explorers,” he said. “This was not just about creating a substrate that clams would thrive in and that was easy to dig… it also was about cultivating plants.”

A lot of plants were valued by the Coast Salish peoples as well — plants they could eat with the seafood they harvested.

“Clam gardens produced clams but they also produced the vegetables that you ate with the clams,” Barsh said.

He noted Coast Salish peoples living in the islands cultivated camas and other edibles and constructed habitats that changed the landscape in fundamental ways. Kwiáht seeks to find a way to reintroduce camas as a staple food to islanders as it’s drought-tolerant and delicious, he said, likening it to a sweet potato.

“It’s something that we’ve been working on for some time as a possible reintroduced or rejuvenated food within the islands,” Barsh said.

The Coast Salish peoples’ gardening culture was closer to that of those in Polynesia as opposed to fellow Native Americans.

“It’s certainly not hunting and gathering,” he said.

Another sample of Coast Salish agriculture was livestock husbandry — namely “wooly dogs,” which were raised in huge flocks for their wool-like fur, Barsh explained. Flocks would be comprised of a couple of hundred dogs, which is an enormous protein drain, he added. Only a society that could produce enormous surpluses of food could possibly maintain a textile industry based on dog flocks, he said. So they shared fish.

“[They] needed to produce far more fish than humans could eat because of the dogs,” Barsh said.

When Europeans came, they brought with them huge flocks of sheep, which eventually replaced the dogs.

“A flock of 200 dogs has a totally different impact than a flock of 200 sheep,” Barsh said. “Sheep are grass eaters and when European shepherds arrived here 140 years ago, they didn’t find much grass because Coast Salish people were gardening and pulling all the grass up.”

According to Barsh, when Europeans came, they brought with them non-native grasses and planted them in the flower meadows once cultivated by the Coast Salish peoples.

“That’s very European,” Barsh said.

Wildlife harvesting

It’s a well-known fact that salmon are an important part of the marine food chain in and around the San Juan Islands. The Coast Salish peoples harvested a lot of salmon. According to Barsh, salmon was produced on an industrial scale because it could be dried and traded. The Coast Salish peoples developed technology to cull salmon by the millions instead of the dozens, he continued. On the mainland, tribes would build weirs to capture the fish.

“This was a very simple way of catching huge numbers of salmon,” Barsh said.

The island tribes had reef nets. For up to 3,000 years, Coast Salish peoples used a net slung down below boats in strategic locations to trap adult salmon.

Off the south end of Lopez, where reef nets were anchored to rocks on the bottom of the ocean until the 1970s, scientists were delighted to see rockfish had moved into a discarded anchor stone pile, Barsh said.

“We had never seen so many rockfish in one place, it was an enormous swiss cheese of rockfish,” he said.

The Coast Salish people also ate rockfish, so an unintended benefit to discarding anchor stones was creating a preferred habitat for rockfish.

“That’s something that we still benefit to some extent from,” Barsh said.

Coast Salish peoples also caught birds with the same nets with which they fished. Along the wetland shores and between the smaller islands, the tribes would harvest birds on an industrial scale, he added.

Social context

The Coast Salish people were interconnected, Barsh explained. They had ships, large permanent villages connected by marriages and trade alliances existed throughout the Salish Sea.

“People were not isolated from each other,” Barsh said, adding that unlike in other areas of North America, the Europeans integrated into the local society more fluidly. “That was a world in which early European settlers were much more likely than they were elsewhere in North America to simply marry in. … That’s something that’s very special about the islands that we should not forget.”

Europeans chose extensively to become part of Coast Salish families because of their commerce connections and rich history.

“A lot of the people that we treat as the pioneers of San Juan County were not pioneers — they were the Indians,” Barsh said.

Some more locally famous people such as Sam Barlow, the first ferry captain, and State Senator William Bishop were Coast Salish.

“There were more Native Americans serving in the Washington state leg in 1920 than there are today in 2020 and most of them came from the islands,” Barsh said.

People have transformed the islands’ landscape in profound ways over the years, according to Barsh, from fire to logging, to turning shorelines into gardens. Key industries have also existed in the islands — fishing, logging, milling, boat building, ferries — and many were run by Coast Salish families for more than 50 years, he explained.

“The challenge now is for us to be more conscious but more specific about what we value in the islands in terms of some of our landscapes,” Barsh said. “I would wish that we would spend a little more time working together building an appreciation but also taking care of these places.”