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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Where the water meets the land : between culture and history in Upper Skagit aboriginal territory Malone, Molly Sue


Upper Skagit Indian Tribe are a Coast Salish fishing community in western Washington, USA, who face the challenge of remaining culturally distinct while fitting into the socioeconomic expectations of American society, all while asserting their rights to access their aboriginal territory. This dissertation asks a twofold research question: How do Upper Skagit people interact with and experience the aquatic environment of their aboriginal territory, and how do their experiences with colonization and their cultural practices weave together to form a historical consciousness that orients them to their lands and waters and the wider world? Based on data from three methods of inquiry—interviews, participant observation, and archival research—collected over sixteen months of fieldwork on the Upper Skagit reservation in Sedro-Woolley, WA, I answer this question with an ethnography of the interplay between culture, history, and the land and waterscape that comprise Upper Skagit aboriginal territory. This interplay is the process of historical consciousness, which is neither singular nor sedentary, but rather an understanding of a world in flux made up of both conscious and unconscious thoughts that shape behavior. I conclude that the ways in which Upper Skagit people interact with what I call the waterscape of their aboriginal territory is one of their major distinctive features as a group. Their approach to the world is framed by their experience of this space and the divide between land and water within it, which is permeable and constantly shifting. Community members understand the cultural salience of places within the waterscape, including places that are now submerged beneath lakes created by hydroelectric dams. Oral narratives remain important in Upper Skagit culture today even though the narratives are accessed in changing ways, such as reading and listening to recordings or invoking parts of stories at carefully chosen times. The regulatory and legal regimes of the colonial process—examined as both broad strokes and fine grains—shape people’s consciousness and behavior in the waterscape. This case study both builds on and contributes to the literatures of Coast Salish ethnography, cultural constructions of place, cultural distinctiveness of indigenous groups, and the anthropology of water.

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