San Juan Longhouses

Winter living on the San Juan Islands

To escape harsh winter weather the Straits Salish Indians spent the season in the warmth of their cedar longhouses.

Before the English came, this site was known as Pe'pi'ow'elh, and for thousands of years was a bustling winter village for the Straits Salish peoples.

The Straits Salish people moved with the seasons, following the bounty of the sea and land. The camp here was their winter dwelling place. In January, the Native fishermen left their winter abodes to begin fishing steelhead while the rest of the population remained until April or May. From May through to the end of summer, the Straits Salish people collected camas, berries, and other types of plants in the woods and prairies. By September, the salmon began moving upriver and the group would then move to the water to begin fishing. After the salmon season ended and the weather began to grow colder, the Salish moved back to their winter village.

Straits Salish people were accomplished architects and during the winter season they would shelter themselves in roofed, cedar longhouses. Most of these longhouses would be clustered into a village setting, with three to five other houses. The people, organized socially and politically according to kinship, shared these longhouses. The storage and cooking of food were divided between families, but labor and hunting were always a shared venture. They followed a patriarchal lineage within each house. Each house belonged to an elder male and his immediate family, then the male members of his extended family and their families.

The village of Pe'pi'ow'elh was extensively inhabited by Native people from about 500 CE until the 1800s. In 1860, the British Marines demolished the deserted longhouses to make space for their parade grounds. The longhouses were often huge–they were thirty to fifty feet wide and fifty to two hundred feet long, or longer. One of the longhouses destroyed by the British Marines at Pe’pi’ow’elh was six hundred feet long! These huge cedar houses featured no windows, but openings in the roofs would allow smoke out and light in. The arrival of European diseases nearly wiped out the Straits Salish because living in the close quarters of the longhouses during the winter season contributed to the spread of tuberculosis and scrofula.

Despite disease and losing their homelands, many of the Straits Salish people endure today as self-governing nations within the United States. For example, the Lummi reservation is located on a peninsula near Bellingham, Washington, just across from Lummi Island. In 2017, young Lummi members constructed a smaller version of a longhouse with instruction from elders. The Lummi Nation has also offered classes like canoe building on San Juan Island to teach students about their culture.