A People and a Place

A People and a Place

The Significance of September 22nd for the Shoalwater Bay Tribe
By Earl Davis, Shoalwater Bay Tribal member, and Tribal Culture and Heritage Director
September 2020

Life for the people living in the various villages scattered around Willapa (Shoalwater) Bay and the Coast from Tokeland to Westport, was largely unchanged for a millennia. The people were made up of a cultural group now known as South West Coastal and/or Chinookan. Two related cultural groups under the larger “North West Coast” group. The biggest distinction and perhaps the only distinction between these two groups was language. The more northern group predominantly spoke Thlawaltmish, a southern Salish language. The Southern group spoke Chinook. The two groups were highly intermarried which resulted in the material and ethnographic cultures of the two being nearly identical.

It wasn’t until relatively recent that things changed for us. In 1788 the bay was “discovered” by John Meares of the East India Trading Company. While this is often considered the first direct contact with outsiders, general knowledge of Europeans and settlers in other parts of the country were known by the people. In addition to that, oral tradition does have some ancient stories about things like lost ancient Chinese vessels being stranded on nearby shores.

These first encounters were often not much more than a bit of trading and years often passed in between encounters. Lewis and Clark’s famed expedition reached the mouth of the Columbia in 1805 and the area then was still largely untouched by outside influence.

The expedition resulted in the great expansions west by the United States, but by the time James Swan lived on Willipa Bay in 1854, it was still largely unsettled. However, by this time several waves of various illnesses had resulted in an estimated 80-90% death rate of our people. This meant, that while settlement of the bay was still very low, so was our native population.
During Swan’s time on the bay, westward expansion was at a fever pitch and the Governor of the new Washington territory was eager to relocate tribes and open the area to settlement for non-native peoples.

As a people we went to the Anson Dart Treaty negotiations in 1851. The terms were found to be acceptable by the people of our region. One of the terms was that we were all to relocate to Willapa Bay. This was acceptable for the people already living in villages here. The problem with this treaty though is that Congress never ratified it.

In 1855 we met with Governor Isaac Stevens in Cosmopolis. Stevens’ terms were to relocate “All fish-eating tribes of western Washington” to the newly proposed reservation at Taholah.
Our leaders found these terms to be unacceptable. Our terms were very simple, we wished to be able to continue to hunt and fish, and to live and be buried with our ancestors. The settlers could do what they wished with land that was of no consequence to us.

With neither side being able to agree, the negotiations broke down and we refused to leave our traditional territory. Governor Stevens vowed to return and strike a deal or force us to submit, however, he was called back east to the Civil War where he was killed in action in 1862.
The people of Shoalwater Bay were largely forgotten by this time. For us, things kind of went back to normal. Most accounts from both sides say we got along fairly well with the new settler neighbors and there was not much thought about it.

However, during 1865-66 the government remembered we were here. The local Indian agent wrote to President Andrew Johnson about our situation. The letters stated that there was a group of natives “some 30 to 40 families” living on a village site on Shoalwater Bay. He continued by saying that we did not wish to give up our ways and simply wanted to secure our village for our selves and not be driven off. The land of our village was of no farming value and according to the letters “would work no injury to the whites”.

So on September 22, 1866, the president signed a one-paragraph executive order that basically says set this land aside for the Indians. The order was a milestone in that, through our stubborn refusal to submit we had secured our ancestral home as our own. However, the order was so vague and so short that it has often meant we secured nothing else. The original order also only secured just over 330 acres of land.

So today let us remember our ancestor’s determination to live their lives as we had forever and also let it reignite our pursuit for our rights to do so. Due to the vagueness of the order, our small size and unique location means that many of our issues in terms of relations with the U.S. government are unique even in Indian country. Our ancestor’s determination secured this life for us today, let us be as determined to secure a better life for our future generations as well.

Remembering the Dome

Remembering the Dome

One year ago today, I met the man who built Eugene’s geodesic dome studio, and wrote a blog post about it. To commemorate this anniversary I am reposting it here, on Gene’s official website. I hope you enjoy it~Judith


Last week I got a phone call in response to the article about Eugene Landry. The caller said he was sitting in his car at Swanson’s. He’d been reading the newspaper while his wife shopped for groceries, and found an article I’d submitted about my search for the art of Eugene Landry. This was the second phone call I’d received since the story was published six weeks ago. The story I wrote mentioned the geodesic dome and small beachfront cabin where Gene once lived and made his art.

“I’m the guy who built Gene’s dome.” His voice was soft and had a hint of a smile.

The tribe had razed the dome and cabin in 1998 to make room for casino parking. Today a gas station sits on the site. I talked to people to get a history of the dome, but after forty years, the facts were hazy. I heard the dome was put up during the summer of 1978, possibly by a hippie who drove a Rolls Royce…or was it a Citroen? or was it someone else entirely? Maybe it was the guy with the great danes. Someone said a couple of guys from Canada might have put it together from a kit and then moved on. And so it went. I never expected to talk to the actual builder of the dome, figuring he was either a fugitive, dead or just plain untraceable.

And suddenly this sweet guy from the nearby town of Cosmopolis was on the phone, with a story to tell.

One week later, I drove through a quiet neighborhood in Cosmopolis, an old logging town, looking for the home of Don Norkoski. Following his directions, I turned off off Highway 101 and looked for “the house surrounded by rhododendron bushes”. A sandy-haired man wearing a grey blazer over a colorful shirt and blue jeans greeted me at the door. He reminded me of a high school band teacher, he had that air of patience and good-natured smile. Don invited me inside and introduced me to his wife.
In the living room, a box of photos and old newspaper clippings sat on the couch, along with two original pieces of Gene’s art. Like something out of a dream, he handed me a photo of Gene’s dome. At last-proof that it really existed!



While he was a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Don took a class called Space, Time and Form. He learned how to build geodesic domes from a book by Lloyd Kahn called Domebook.

“I would read Buckminster Fuller-he was the guru of domes. I just got the urge to build one. I’d spent too much time in academia and not doing enough with my hands. Once I got into it I never left. I went blue-collar.” He shows me a photo of a dome at the corner of Smith and Butte creek.”This was my hippie place,” he smiles. “I was an infamous North River Hippie.”

Don was 22 years old when he dropped out of Evergreen and went into the dome building business, setting up shop in the home of a friend on Cedar Street near the river, where he built a greenhouse. And then, “Gene showed up one day. He heard about me and he looked at this (the greenhouse) and he said ‘can you build me one?'”

Gene hired Don to build his dome. Back then, in 1976, the daily wage was five dollars an hour. Don recycled old-growth 2x4s, planing and oiling the surface, to build the frame. They used beach-salvaged Alaskan cedar to make the girders. “It smelled like perfume when you cut into it,” he said, with a nostalgic tone of voice.

Over the course of a summer a dome was built and a friendship made between Don and Gene. He visited after the job was completed, showing me a photo of how Gene kept it as an art studio. It was sparsely furnished inside, with a wood stove and simple lighting. I asked Don why he thought Gene liked domes.
“The dome had an ambiance about it. You always found yourself looking up, staring at the patterns..and it would definitely help with inspiration, especially with a window looking out over the bay.”

After we finished talking about building the dome, Don showed me two pieces of Gene’s art he bought during that time period. One was a highly detailed charcoal drawing of a boat at the docks. Don said “I liked his art. But we were poor hippies. I had a sister in law, she was older than me, she grew up in a different generation. She never said anything but I could tell she didn’t like me…being a hippie. There was a short period of time where my brother and I exchanged gifts at Christmas. So I decided to take a chance. I bought the picture from Gene. I remember the price, $75. That was two days wages. I gave it to my sister in law and she loved it. Had it professionally framed. And I got treated a little nicer since then.”
Don’s brother gave the drawing back to him after his sister in law passed away in 2001.

As the time came for me to leave, I asked Don how he would sum up his time with Gene. He paused for a moment to gather his thoughts and find the right words.
“He always had a smile, was always positive…there was never any negativity or reaction to his plight. I know that. That’s one thing I definitely came away with.”

Portrait of Gene-the Catalog!

Portrait of Gene-the Catalog!

We are happy to announce the exhibit catalog is up and available to order. Click on catalog link to preview all 52 pages. The book is filled with photos, Shoalwater Bay tribal heritage interviews, and Art. It is priced at cost. We thank Humanities Washington for a 2019 Storyteller’s Grant, and the Shoalwater Bay Tribe for all it’s support. We appreciate social media shares-please help us to spread the word!

An Unexpected Gift

An Unexpected Gift

Last November, 82-year-old Sara Nelson sent me an email. She had heard about my search for Eugene Landry’s art and sent two photos of paintings she owned, offering to show them to me after the holidays. In the meantime, we messaged back and forth. Sara wrote “I am deaf so can only communicate via email or texting. You can call my husband, Charley…” She added that Charley, an Alaskan Native, excavates fossilized walrus ivory for scrimshaw carvings. Because  I am a metalsmith who incorporates organic materials in my work, she thought I would like to see some of Charley’s lapidary art too. I was definitely interested.

Carefully unfolding the brittle paper. photo by Marcy Merrill

After 46 consecutive days of rain, the sun came out last week, and so did Sara Nelson. My friend, professional photographer Marcy Merrill was on hand to document the art while Sara and I visited.

I asked Sara to tell us where the art came from;

“Fred Landry, his (Gene’s) daddy, he was a sweet man. I met him at a sale he was having, and he told me to pick out some of them and I did. In the old barn. In about 1995. There must have been 30 to 40 pictures, sketches…He owned them. I saw that the water was creeping up toward them. I had them framed and carried them from house to house to house.”

oil on canvas, 16×20, 1972

It was great to see another one of Gene’s nudes. As of this posting, the model’s identity (like all of his nude models) remains unknown. Judging by the dark green background it was most likely painted in his cabin on Shoalwater Bay.

There was also a charcoal drawing of a decaying dock scene, the location unknown and undated, but judging by the condition of the paper and the style, probably from the 1960s. And another painting-of Gene’s art studio.


Studio, 20×24 oil on board, 1962

The painting is unsigned but a pencil inscription on the back in Gene’s hand reads March 9, 1962. Other canvases from this time period list a 15th Ave address in Seattle.

There is a moodiness about this piece, a noir-ish quality: the dark wooden door and molding, the ancient corner sink and exposed pipe, the battered-green dresser. In the center of the room, a cadmium-red scarf is draped across a wooden stool, a slash of scarlet echoed by the red blooms in the vase. A wooden easel adds a vertical element to the composition, as does the door, the pipe, and the edge of the wall.

The sink is stained with paint, the top of the dresser holds cans of turpentine and linseed oil. You can almost smell the intoxicatingly piney odor, warmed by the afternoon sun streaming through the window. A wastebasket set in the middle of the floor glows, golden in the light. A portrait on the wall, partially reflected in a mirror. The room itself has become a still-life.


As the afternoon came to a close, Sara gathered up fossiled walrus ivory and agates from the table, giving a few to me for jewelry making. She handed me a manuscript she helped Charley’s mother, who was an Eskimo Native, to produce containing turn-of-the-century Alaskan history. It is an eye-opening read.

Then Sara made another gift to me. It took me completely by surprise. I asked if she was sure. She said, “I wanted  to make sure it went to someone who would love it and I knew you would.”

Thank you, Sara! photo by Marcy Merrill





Black History Month

Black History Month

When Eugene Landry painted this portrait of a young African-American schoolboy in 1962, the fight to desegregate the public education system was in full swing. Seven years after Brown v Board of Education, the battle raged on. While news headlines shouted of riotous mobs and integration troubles, Gene put a human face on the issue with his paintbrush.

Two years later the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It prohibited unfair voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodation. The legislation was proposed by President Kennedy 1963 but opposed by a Senate filibuster. After Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, President Johnson pushed the bill forward. It was signed into law on July 2, 1964.

Eddie Smith, May 31, 1962

The second of three portraits from this era is of a young man named Eddie Smith. His front-faced stare creates a powerful presence.The camouflage-green shirt he wears alludes to the very real likelihood of impending military service.

“The Vietnam War saw the highest proportion of African-Americans ever to serve in an American war. There was a marked turnaround from the attitude in previous wars that black men were not fit for combat – during the Vietnam War African-Americans faced a much greater chance of being on the front-line, and consequently a much higher casualty rate. In 1965 alone African-Americans represented almost 25 percent of those killed in action.”-The History Detectives PBS

October 1963

The final portrait is loose with a lot of unpainted canvas. Landry’s model is cool, dignified and self-contained. The sketchy quality of the outlying brushwork forces the focus to the model’s face. He appears to be about the same age as Eddie Smith, but there is no name or artist signature, only a date on the back of the canvas board. Gene painted this portrait, like the preceding two, in Seattle. He lived in a racially mixed section of the city, and all of these models may have been his neighbors or friends. Today they would be in their 70s or early 80s.