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Since time immemorial, the Snoqualmie Falls has been a sacred site for the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe. The base of the tribe’s creation story, each droplet of mist that flies into the air is said to carry prayers up to the ancestors in the heaven’s above.

“In a way, it’s our beginning, it’s our middle, and it’s our end. It is the center of the spirit of the Snoqualmie people,” said Steven Moses, director of archaeology and historic preservation for the tribe, in a video calling to save the falls.

A place of great importance to the tribe, the picturesque falls are also a popular destination for Washington state visitors, drawing over one and a half million visitors annually. The falls are a short drive east of Seattle.

To support projects and expenses associated with the ongoing work to protect ancestral lands, the Snoqualmie Tribe implemented a new two percent land protection tax on March 1, collected on sales made at the Salish Lodge & Spa. The tax is believed to be the first of its kind in North America, according to the tribe.

The Snoqualmie Falls are a site of great ancestral and cultural significance to the Snoqualmie Tribe, serving as the home to the tribe's origin story. The tribe recently implemented a two percent land protection tax at the Salish Lodge & Spa to help protect the falls and other ancestral lands. (Photo courtesy of the Snoqualmie Tribe)

The falls: A site of creation

“This was the area of the birth of our nation. And it’s something that we need to continue to preserve, for the next generations,” said tribal Chairman Robert (Bob) de los Angeles. “Our ancestors and previous leaders did the same thing for us when we were younger.”

As the birthplace of the tribe, Sqʷed (Snoqualmie Falls) is one of the tribe’s most sacred sites. The tribe at one point had over 90 longhouses along the Snoqualmie River and its tributaries — the rivers and streams served as highways connecting the villages together, according to the tribe.

In a document provided by the tribe, translating the origin story of the tribe, the following is written:

“We are the sdukʷalbixʷ, People of Moon. We are the descendants of słukʷalb tə dukʷibeł. We have lived, hunted and fished this area for as long as the earth and rivers remember. We are still here today; caring for the land, water, fish and game that dukʷibeł gave us. The mists carry our thoughts and prayers to the spirits and ancestors as they cleanse our thoughts. The rushing waters give us the strength to keep our traditions alive and to continue to thrive in the modern times.”

In the tribe’s origin story, it is told that Moon the Transformer created Snoqualmie Falls, placing fish in the river and wild game nearby, before creating various people, including the Snoqualmie Tribe. In a coloring book, the tribe has written out part of the story to share with tribal citizens and others who want to learn more about the Snoqualmie people.

The falls have always served as a gathering site and many burial locations sit near the falls. Today, Snoqualmie Falls continues to be a site for ceremony and cultural practices.

“The falls, in all of our memory, is a place of creation. Where the first man and the first woman were created from Moon the Transformer. So it’s a place of power,” said Carolyn Lubenau, tribal citizen, in a video calling to save the falls.

Land protection tax

A place of deep sacred and cultural significance for the Snoqualmie people, the falls in recent decades has become a popular tourist destination. Visitors to the falls often do not know much about the Snoqualmie tribe and for decades the messaging at the falls park has centered around messaging about Puget Sound Energy and the dam, not tribal history, Martin said.

“The hope is two fold: I think that by having the tax itself, hopefully people are going to be asking questions so they can learn about the tribe,” said Jaime Martin, Snoqualmie, executive director of Governmental Affairs and Special Projects for the tribe.

Snoqualmie tribal members gather together for a ribbon cutting of the newly renovated Snoqualmie Falls Gift Shop & Visitor Center. From left to right: Jaime Martin, executive director of governmental affairs and special projects for the tribe; Amber Holloway; Shauna Shipp-Martinez, tribal council secretary; Jolene Williams, tribal council member; Shannon Galusha, Salish Lodge & Spa; Shelley Burch, former tribal council member; Steve de los Angeles, vice chairman; Robert de los Angeles, tribal chairman; Gwynne Chase, Salish Lodge & Spa; Chief Nathan Barker; Melynda Digre, tribal council alternate; Chris Castleberry, former tribal council member; and Bill Sweet, tribal council member. (Photo courtesy of the Snoqualmie Tribe)

With the recent acquisition of the Salish Lodge & Spa, the tribe also bought the falls gift shop. After renovations, the tribe reopened the gift shop in April, with messages from the tribe about Snoqualmie’s story, so visitors can understand why the falls are a sacred site and the work being done to preserve it.

“I think the tax also signifies and demonstrates the tribe's commitment and values,” Martin said. “This is what we want to invest in — we want to invest in the protection of our ancestral lands.”

The tribe is already actively investing in the protection of their ancestral lands in a number of ways, both through acquisition and education.

In the late spring of 2021, Martin and other tribal citizens working for the tribal government launched the Snoqualmie Tribe Ancestral Lands Movement — aiming to spread awareness about the Snoqualmie people and information about how the public can help the tribe restore and protect public lands that are historically significant to the tribe.

In 2019, the tribe entered a deal with the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, purchasing the Salish Lodge & Spa for $125 million, protecting the Snoqualmie Falls lands from the construction of a hotel and convention center.

In 2022, the tribe acquired around 12,000 acres of its ancestral forestlands, located in the Tolt River Watershed in King County. The acquired forestland is located near lands that were originally promised to the tribe by the federal government as its reservation in the 1930s, but the promise was not kept, according to a press release from the tribe.

The tribe named the acquired land the Snoqualmie Tribe Ancestral Forest and uses the area to sustainably harvest timber in an effort to support the biodiversity of native plants and wildlife and protect the tribe’s cultural heritage and connection to the site, according to the release.

“Reclamation of our ancestral lands allows us as Snoqualmie people to practice our sovereignty and inherent right to care for these lands to which we are so deeply connected,” Martin said. “We want to give back to the same lands that cared for our ancestors since time immemorial, as they cared for the lands. That ability to connect and care through reclamation is critical to healing and thriving, as Snoqualmie people.”

The land protection tax collected at the Salish Lodge & Spa will go toward supporting further reclamation and restoration projects led by the tribe.

Since its implementation in March, the tax has seen little push back from the public, according to the tribe.

“So far we’ve had pretty good results with (the tax) from the public,” de los Angeles said. “Everybody seems to be on board to help make sure that tax money can go into making sure we keep the land taken care of.”

He hopes that the land protection tax can serve as a model for other tribes working to reclaim their ancestral lands.

Lead image: Snoqualmie Tribal Chairman Robert (Bob) de los Angeles stands at the base of the Snoqualmie Falls, a site of great cultural and ancestral significance for the tribe. (Photo courtesy of the Snoqualmie Tribe)

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Nika is a journalist with a passion for working to center the voices and experiences of communities often left behind in mainstream media coverage. Of Osage and Oneida Nations descent, with Northern European...