In the southern Lushootseed language, "Suquamish" means "place of clear salt water," which serves as a sort of verbal map to Agate Passage by canoe. For decades, however, the map was lost; federal laws created to assimilate tribes into white culture made it illegal to speak Lushootseed or even carve a canoe. Native children from reservations were shipped off to boarding schools to learn English and Christianity -- to "kill the Indian, not the man," as Capt. Richard Pratt, the founder of one of the first boarding schools, put it.
Most Suquamish children, many as young as 3 or 4 years old, were sent to the Chamawa Indian School in Salem, Ore., nearly 250 miles to the south. If they spoke their language or practiced traditional ceremonies, the nuns who ran the school would slap their hands with rulers, beat them or lock them in the basement, according to Suquamish elders whose stories are now displayed in the tribal museum.
"The thought was to send them far enough away so that they didn't know how to get home," says 50-year-old Barbara Lawrence, whose father was sent away with all 12 of his siblings. Nine of them died at school, most likely from flu and tuberculosis epidemics. Lawrence, whose dad died when she was 4 years old, believes boarding school broke her uncle. "He struggled with alcoholism his entire life. Truly he suffered greatly. He did not raise his children well. But what comes before drugs and alcohol is despair. The truth is, they decimated the culture, and now we have the pieces to pick up."
Though the last of the residential schools closed by the 1950s, their traumatic legacy has been passed down by parents who never learned how to properly care for their children or cope with their experience.
"They didn't learn how to create boundaries, they don't teach boundaries to their kids, there's not consequences for actions and then, well, instead of a 2-year-old having a temper tantrum, you have an 18-year-old raping a neighbor," says Lawrence, her voice collapsing. She believes that her home is one of about three on her block that is alcohol-free. "Multigenerational dysfunction makes it a very scary place to grow up. There's a basic uncertainty in children's lives. Is my mom gonna be happy or sad tonight? Are the lights going to be on or off?"
For Native youth, instability at home is often compounded by the racism that still thrives outside the reservation. Fueled by conflicts over tribal rights to salmon fishing and geoduck hunting, negative stereotyping persists in Kingston, the mostly white community near Agate Passage where Suquamish children go to school.
"These white girls at my school, I used to be friends with them, but they make fun of me and my culture. They said, ‘Natives are so dumb,' " says Cara, 11, looking down at her hands. "I'm a good student, but it made me feel so sad. I don't hang out with them anymore."
Racism makes kids feel separate and erodes their self-esteem, says Chuck Wagner, who grew up on the reservation and who once headed the Suquamish Wellness Center. In the late 1990s, Wagner realized that Suquamish youth, looking for a way to belong, had begun mimicking gang culture. Alcohol and drug use became a rite of passage into adulthood. Wagner was desperate to find a way to help these at-risk kids, but the medical literature only offered programs that had nothing to do with the specific circumstances of rural reservation life and its history.
"We needed something that came from our community," says Wagner. "It's about getting back to the roots of the tribe. It's about sovereignty. It's about the same reason why people in Montana can better manage their lands than someone in D.C. telling them how to do things. We can develop something better right here in the community."
And there, staring Wagner in the face, was a thousand-year-old solution.