Native American Women Leaders

Snohomish County is the ancestral home of four main tribal groups, the Snohomish, whose subgroups include the Skykomish and Pilchuck; the Snoqualmie; the Sauk and Suiattle River People; and the Stillaguamish.

Originally, these tribes lived along the river courses between the Cascade Mountains and Puget Sound. After the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855, they were forced to relocate to the newly created Tulalip Reservation. Many tribes refused to move.

Through the 20th Century it was difficult for many NW Native Americans to find employment, access ancestral fishing grounds, and maintain basic human rights. Several tribal women stand out for their tenacity during this period.

“…people are not accustomed to thinking of Native women as feminists, leaders, and contributors to social change. Their songs are unsung.”

— LaDonna Harris, President and Founder, Americans for Indian Opportunity

Pilchuck Julia

Pilchuck Julia (1840 to 1923) was best known as a weather prophet, credited for predicting the 1916 snow storm that paralyzed the town for 3 weeks. Her renown and her regal bearing gave her almost “super model” status; people loved to photograph her. Rather than relocate to the Tulalip Reservation she remained on the Pilchuck River, selling smoked salmon, and making baskets to keep her idependence. (Image courtesy of Everett Public Library)

Pilchuck Julia (1840 to 1923) was best known as a weather prophet, credited for predicting the 1916 snow storm that paralyzed the town for 3 weeks. Her renown and her regal bearing gave her almost “super model” status; people loved to photograph her. Rather than relocate to the Tulalip Reservation she remained on the Pilchuck River, selling smoked salmon, and making baskets to keep her idependence. (Image courtesy of Everett Public Library)

More recently, Ester Ross, Jean Bedal Fish and her sister Edith Bedal, were local leaders who fought to improve their people’s quality of life, preserve their culture, and retain their tribal integrity.

Esther Ross

Stillaguamish Chief Frank Allen and Esther Ruth Ross (1904-1988) point to an area on map they say belongs to the Stillaguamish tribe. They are planning a fish-in to protest the tribe's loss of fishing rights on its ancestral lands. From the Museum of History and Industry, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection.

Stillaguamish Chief Frank Allen and Esther Ruth Ross (1904-1988) point to an area on map they say belongs to the Stillaguamish tribe. They are planning a fish-in to protest the tribe's loss of fishing rights on its ancestral lands. From the Museum of History and Industry, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection.

Born in Oakland, California, Esther Ross relocated to Snohomish County at the invitation of her Stillaguamish relatives. To her dismay she found the Stillaguamish were no longer considered an official tribe because they had no land. Her tribe had traditionally lived in scattered settlements along the Stillaguamish River, but was removed in the 1800s by the US government to make way for white settlers. The entity that denied the tribe recognition for not having land was the same one that took that land away in the first place!  For the next 50 years, Esther Ross petitioned for acknowledgement, rights and benefits for the Stillaguamish. She stopped the Bicentennial Wagon Train en route to the Eastern U.S at Island Crossing, sent a frozen salmon to the Department of Interior, and just plain persisted in making her point (and filing legal papers)– resulting in official recognition of the “People of the Salmon” in 1976.

The Bedal Sisters

Edith Bedal (1903-1995), Susan Wa-wet-kin Bedal (1875-1947), and Jean Bedal (1907-1997), circa 1920s. From the Photo Collection of Louise Lindgren.

Edith Bedal (1903-1995), Susan Wa-wet-kin Bedal (1875-1947), and Jean Bedal (1907-1997), circa 1920s. From the Photo Collection of Louise Lindgren.

Jean Bedal Fish was born to homesteader James Bedal and Susan Wa-Wet-Kin.  James Bedal hired a schoolteacher for the children living in the Bedal homestead vicinity.  As a result, Harry, Jean, and Edith Bedal spoke proficient English, as well as Lushootseed, the language of their mother.  Susan and her daughters ran a successful horse-packing tourism business in the 1920s, leading expeditions from Arlington and Darrington to Monte Cristo, Goat Lake, and other scenic areas, as well as to the snowfields and trails around Glacier Peak. Silver was one of their favorite horses, although they had several others at the Bedal "ranch" in the upper Sauk River area.

When Jean married Russell Fish, she helped manage the Lodge at Monte Cristo.  As adults, Edith and her older brother Harry both worked for the Forest Service.  Thanks to the efforts of Jean and her sister Edith, the Sauk-Suittle tribe was officially recognized by the U.S. government in 1975. Jean also served as Tribal Chairman from 1979-82. In retirement, the sisters worked to document their native Lushootseed language and local history.  Their writings are published in Two Voices (2000). Edith also was a renowned basket maker and was selected as a Washington Centennial Artist; her baskets are in the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, in Seattle. Several baskets made by Susan Bedal, Edith’s teacher, are in the Seattle Art Museum.