Return of the Salmon: City of Sultan celebrates Indigenous culture

By Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News

Approximately 25 miles east of the Tulalip Reservation is the city of Sultan, located exactly at the confluence of the Skykomish and Sultan rivers. After the search of gold brought many settlers to the area, the town decided to pay respect to the chief of the Skykomish at the time by naming the city in his honor, T’seul-Ted, or Sultan spelled out phonetically. 

A man of many relations, Chief T’seul-Ted, locally known as Sultan John, had ties to Tribal nations throughout the region, was highly-respected amongst Salish people, and known for his work as a healer. If you’re an outdoor recreational enthusiasts and spend your winters skiing and snowboarding at Stevens Pass, you may have seen Chief T’seul-Ted fishing along Highway 2 as you entered the city, or the 13-foot wooden statue built in his likeness. Every year, for the past eight years, the town gathers at Osprey Park to celebrate Chief T’seul-Ted’s legacy as well as Indigenous culture at the Return of the Salmon Celebration. 

A little rain didn’t prevent the Sultan community from coming out for some family fun time at Osprey Park on the morning of September 28. Since the Washington autumn weather is unpredictable, the daylong event saw a mixture of precipitation and sun rays through the duration of the celebration. Luckily, the majority of the festivities took place under a covered basketball court, allowing the people to stay dry while they feasted on frybread and salmon caesar salads. 

“This is our eighth year,” exclaimed Mars Miller, Return of the Salmon Celebration committee member. “It started with Matthew War Bonnet (Lakota), wanting to honor Chief T’seul-Ted as the namesake of Sultan because it often gets lost. This celebration is our way to honor Chief T’seul-Ted and bring back the real history of our area and honor the Native people of the Northwest.”

It’s important to note that along with honoring Chief T’seul-Ted, the community is also commemorating the restoration of the local salmon habitat.  The Tulalip Tribes dedicated time, funds and efforts to remove and manage a series of dams, clean up debris and restore riverbeds along the Sultan and Skykomish Rivers for spawning salmon. 

The Return of the Salmon Celebration is a way for locals to learn about the salmon habitat. The city enlists a number of local non-profit organizations, such as Sound Salmon Solutions, to help raise awareness and educate attendees about current recovery efforts taking place around the state. Snohomish County PUD hosts guided tours of the rivers for festival goers to show the environmental work they are doing, monitoring the river’s water quality, temperature and flow. 

Every half-hour a horse drawn carriage arrived at the park, picking up those celebrating the return of the salmon and transporting them a few blocks to the Sultan high school. Once at the school, they received a first-hand look at how the students are making strong efforts with Coho salmon recovery.

“Sultan high school has one of the only hatcheries at a school in the state, maybe the whole country,” said Mars. “We are thankful to Tulalip who offers support through a grant to keep that work going because it’s an important opportunity for students to get hands-on experience and learn how to take care of the salmon. And who knows, hopefully from that program some students will find a career path and develop a passion for fisheries.” 

Among the vendors selling jewelry, salves and native artwork, sat Tulalip’s own Taylor Family Basket Weaving. Tribal members Lance and Tammy held a live weaving demonstration that sparked plenty of interest as onlookers watched the couple work their magic, turning strips of cedar into baskets. 

“This our fourth year and we just love this event,” Tammy stated. “Usually we don’t travel outside our Native community of Tulalip, but we enjoy being here. It’s a great way to honor the salmon and the Indigenous culture in the Sultan area. We like visiting and hearing stories from the local community who talk about their great grandparents and their lineage. We love the medicine that happens here. We love seeing people enjoy our gift and we love teaching, especially the young kids. Giving back is why we’re here, it’s our duty, we need to let our people know why we do this. ”

A highlight for the kiddos was visiting the arts and crafts station by Skykomish Valley Indian Education. Incorporating the culture of the Snohomish people, the art activities included beading necklaces and bracelets as well as painting cedar salmon blocks. 

The entertainment for the day included performances by Lummi violinist Swil Kanim, Native American flutist Paul Nyenhuis as well as a mini powwow with beats provided by War Bonnet Drum, a group led by Tulalip tribal member, Don Carpenter. 

“It’s our first time here, it’s neat,” said Tulalip Elder, Virginia Carpenter. “My son is drumming here today. It’s a real good event for the kids and a great way to share our culture and get our people together.”

Following the celebration, guests were asked to meet at Traveler’s Park, located off of Highway 2, for a special unveiling. A large boulder was positioned facing the highway and painted on its front was decorated war hero and proud Tulalip tribal member, Sam Wold Jr. Sam served in the Army during World War II, where he received two purple hearts, a silver star and a bronze star for his service. Sam’s medals, gear and uniform are on display at the Hibulb Cultural Center.

Sam passed away at the age of 81 in 2006. A lifelong local of Sultan, the city submitted an application to the 50 State Freedom Rock Tour, an event created by artist Ray ‘Bubba’ Sorensen II. Initially, Bubba began the project in his home state of Iowa, painting a large boulder to pay tribute to the United States Veterans. Each year, Bubba has painted a new image on the rock to commemorate Memorial Day, dedicating the rest of the year to painting one boulder to honor a veteran in every state. This year’s Washington State freedom rock dedication to Sam was sure to include his Salish roots, as Bubba incorporated the Tulalip killer whale into the painting. 

“It was amazing to experience that ceremony and witness that honoring,” said Tribal member Sarah Jean Hart. “To see a Tulalip tribal member honored that way was beautiful and absolutely amazing.”

The 9th Annual Return of the Salmon Celebration will take place on September 26, 2020. For more information, please contact event chairperson, Craig Young for additional information at (425) 359-8936.