Indigenous People have lived and stewarded Sx’wálech (Lopez Island) since time immemorial. The earliest evidence of people arriving in the Puget Sound area comes from over 12,500 years ago — a time when these islands were likely still under ice. Indigenous Peoples have cultivated clam gardens and camas fields, raised wooly dogs, woven baskets and blankets, carved wood and stone, fished, traded, married, died, and held ceremony here for millenia. These islands are the traditional homelands of the Northern Straits Coast Salish peoples, particularly the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) and Samish, and their relatives, including the Wsaénech (Saanich), Semiahmoo, T’souke (Sooke), Songhee and the closely related S’Klallam.
For many centuries, Northern Straits Coast Salish Peoples maintained winter villages and seasonal gathering sites throughout the San Juans. On Lopez, examples include Mud Bay, Flat Point, and Fisherman Bay, among others. Despite cultural misunderstanding that they were "only here seasonally," these lands were unmistakably their homelands, inhabited and maintained over countless generations. During specific harvest seasons, families with traditional rights to resources arrived to gather and process food. The mouth and spit of Fisherman Bay is one such site, where families came to harvest shellfish and catch salmon in reef nets, a native fishing method unique to this area of the world.
Located at the intersection of what is today called the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the islands are at the center of a water highway that reaches north to Alaska, south to the Puget Sound, and west to the Pacific Ocean. Today, these islands and waterways continue to be used by Indigenous Peoples for fishing, sustaining traditional knowledge, holding ceremony, enjoyment, activism, Tribal Canoe Journeys, and more.
Though the islands are an important part of their homelands, few Indigenous Peoples live on Lopez today. This is a direct result of the impacts of colonization. Smallpox epidemics devastated Indigenous Communities, first reaching the coast ahead of European explorers who travelled in the 1790s, and re-occurred periodically throughout the 19th century. In the 1820s-1860s, raids on local Indigenous Peoples by Northern tribes increased due to changes brought about by disease, settlement, and access to weapons. The Treaty of Point Elliott was signed in 1855 and pushed Indigenous Peoples onto reservations. When the Homestead Act was signed in 1862, more white settlers came to the area, further displacing Indigenous peoples, and disrupting traditional fishing, harvesting, and significant cultural grounds. All these factors led most Indigenous Peoples living on Lopez to consolidate to villages on other islands and the mainland. A few significant neighboring exceptions include the San Juan Island and Mitchell Bay Bands on San Juan Island, and women who married European-American settlers. In the late 1800s, many families on Lopez were part Indigenous, and some of their descendants still live here.
On Lopez, there are anecdotal stories that when early settlers arrived in the 1860s, Indigenous Peoples were still living near Fisherman Bay. Hiram Hutchinson established a store in the area, and regularly traded with local Indigenous Peoples. He spoke Chinook Jargon, an Indigenous trade language, and lived and had a son with an Indigenous woman called Mary from the Fraser River Valley. Read more about Hiram at stop #2, "Hutch’s Trading Post."