Chief William Shelton's Legacy

Under yesterday's towering cumulus congestus and cumulonimbus clouds, I paid my first visit to the Washington State Library in Olympia to track down the original story of "Pushing Up the Clouds," written by Chief William Shelton and recounted in my previous entry.

I discovered a love for rare books while researching my last book, Rare Bird, and was giddy about seeing and getting my hands on Shelton's 1923 book, The Story of the Totem Pole or Indian Legends. Copies of this 80-page book are in the Rare Book Collection of the library and the librarians there were kind enough to bring me both the 1923 first edition (top left) and the1935 second edition (top right). Each cover appeared like a door in front of me--and once I donned the white cotton gloves and gently opened the cover, I felt the possibility of entering a new world. I didn't expect to experience anything as dramatic as C.S. Lewis's snowy kingdom from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but I certainly felt an excitement of exploration.

The first thing I discovered was that the real title of Shelton's story, "Pushing Up the Sky," is not its real title. The actual title is "Do-kwi-Buhch," the name of the creator of the world according to the Snohomish. I am guessing Ella Clark, who includes Shelton's story in her 1953 book of Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest, was giving the story a bit of the "Just-So-Story" style of Rudyard Kipling. Never does Shelton use the word "pushing" in his story. Instead he calls the great effort the Lifting of the Sky. I prefer the verb lift as it is more graceful and reminiscent of a technique watercolor painters use to create skies with wet paint and bunched-up paper towels--lifting the clouds. Lifting. It's so much nicer than Pushing.

During a time in U.S. history when the language and culture of the Native American tribes were being extinguished, Shelton managed to record for the first time the story of "Do-kwi-Buhch" and many others told to him by his parents, uncles, and great uncles--stories that had been passed down orally from generation to generation. Shelton collected the stories to explain the meaning of the figures he carved in an 84-foot-tall  story pole which was erected in Everett, Washington. (It is currently being restored at the American Legion Memorial Park in Everett). The pole features a carving of the Bundle of Poles used by the Puget Sound tribes to lift the sky (photograph here from the Marysville School District website).

In addition to being the last hereditary chief of the Snohomish Indian Tribe, author, and notable sculptorWilliam Shelton was an emissary between the Snonohomish and U.S. government. He was one of few Snonohomish to speak both English and Lushootseed, the language of the Coast Salish Indians. Shelton writes in the preface of his book that "it is hoped that these stories as well as the pole will stand as a monument to a vanishing race and that they will help our white friends to understand a little of the Indian's belief in sprits, or totems."