Connie McCloud, culture director of the Puyallup Tribe, has spent decades preserving the legacy of her people in the South Sound. Performing blessings at local events is one way she connects the spirit of her ancestors with the community. We chatted with her about education, racism toward Native Americans, and the prospect of renaming Mount Rainier to Mount Tahoma. Some of the questions — or perhaps the answers — brought tears to her eyes.
I’ve gone before recent immigrant groups and they’ll say, “But you don’t look like an Indian.” And that’s because what they know about being an Indian comes from TV, comes from movies. And that doesn’t necessarily reflect who native people are. Who Puyallup people are.
When I do things in a school, they’ll ask, “What’s the one thing that you want students to understand?” And really the message is that we’re still here.
There’s a level of racism and things that exist today, but it’s not the overt kind of things that you saw even as recently as the 1950s, when my parents were becoming young parents. Where you couldn’t go to certain places, you know, downtown Tacoma, because it would say, “Indians not allowed.”
Our children have the opportunity to be exposed to our culture in a safe place … which allows them to learn and live in a much more positive manner, where my parents and my grandparents had to withhold that. They had to hide that out of fear that they would be beaten, they would be put down, they would be intimidated in some manner.
I think the tribe really has a focus on supporting its community. But it also, you know, is more than a smoke shop, more than a bingo hall, more than a casino. And that’s what a lot of people see, but there’s a lot that our people contribute. I think the tribe is the third-largest employer in the county.
(Admiral Peter Rainier) had never been to this country. Never stepped foot on our water, or lands here. It was named for somebody’s buddy. Our people have been here for thousands of years … The mountain is a sacred place. We’ve had a relationship with the mountain for receiving our food but also a spiritual relationship. When people wanted the time to go to pray and fast, that’s where they went. [McCloud would like the mountain to be officially called Mount Tahoma.]
We have more kids in our foster care system. Our young men are more likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system. We’re three times more likely to get diabetes than non-Indians. Our suicide rates for native people are high.