Skip George, S'Klallam historian and spiritual leader | Passages

Claude 'Skip' George ... on the beach at Point Julia, summer 2011.
— image credit: Angela Wisniewski

LITTLE BOSTON — Skip George was a living encyclopedia of S’Klallam culture and history. And his commitment to preserve that knowledge will be appreciated generations from now.

He was raised in the old village on Point Julia by his grandparents and great-grandparents, who spoke the S’Klallam language and passed on to him their memories of S’Klallam life in the mid-1800s.

Long after the Bureau of Indian Affairs destroyed the Point Julia village in 1939, he could recall where individual families lived. He remembered where the herring spawning grounds were, knew where the fishing locations were, could explain why some shell middens were located further away from the beach.

He was a bridge between past, present and future: He traveled by canoe as a child and witnessed them being carved. He was involved in the Paddle to Seattle in 1989, the launch of the cultural renaissance called the Canoe Journey. And in his later years he enjoyed sitting on the beach, watching the young people pulling in canoes and speaking the old languages, singing the old songs and keeping the culture alive.

He was a bridge as a historian as well: He was a keeper of oral history in the manner of his ancestors, preserving that history so it could be recorded in the manner of 21st century archeology.

“He was a phenomenal historian,” said Josh Wisniewski, historic preservation officer for the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe. “He had a wealth of historical and cultural knowledge. He was partially raised by his grandfather and great-grandfather, and he received knowledge from them that went back to mid-1800s.

“As we are doing archeology and other work to document the history of the tribe, and we can get direct information from someone like Skip, it adds an immense amount of texture to the story.”

Wisniewski added, “It was a privileged experience for me (to work with him). He was a very warm and gracious individual.”

Mr. George passed away on Nov. 28 at Martha and Mary Health Care Services in Poulsbo. He was 81. Visitation is Monday at noon, followed by the service at 1 p.m., both in the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribal Gym. Interment will follow in the tribal cemetery.

Mr. George was born Feb. 18, 1930, the son of Claude and Catherine George. His grandparents were William and Ellen Sigo George. His great-grandparents were Eddie and Lucy George.

Respected as he was as a S’Klallam historian, he is also remembered as a man of faith, and a good storyteller with a sense of humor and a big laugh.

“He grew up at a time when it was tough for our people,” Port Gamble S’Klallam Chairman Jeromy Sullivan said. Mr. George told him about building homes after the move from Point Julia, pulling logs out of water and up the cliffside so they could be milled for lumber. “It’s amazing to me to think of some of the logs that came from here. They’re nothing like we see now. They’re much smaller now.”

Mr. George said of the hard work, “ ‘We knew it was for a good reason. We had to do it for our people,’ ” Sullivan recalled.

In his working career, Mr. George was a construction worker, a fisherman, a longshoreman, according to Wisniewski. He worked in a shipyard and helped build the Hood Canal Bridge.

But neither hardship nor hard work dampened his enthusiasm for life. “He had some terrific stories,” Sullivan said. “He was always so happy and his laugh was unique … He really enjoyed himself.”

And neither hardship nor hard work dampened his faith. Later in life, he became an ordained minister.

“He became a great spiritual elder here for our people,” Sullivan said. “One of the things I think is wonderful about him is he wasn’t afraid to let people know ‘Jesus died on the cross for you and you should accept him as your savior.’”

Laurie Mattson, executive director of tribal services, said Mr. George was a minister at the S’Klallam Worship Center and in the community at large, meeting individuals and families who needed prayer or when a loved one had passed on.

“A lot of families called him for prayer. He was so well-loved,” Mattson said. “I’m not a community member, but I loved him.”

Sullivan grew up a couple of houses from Mr. George’s house. “We would take Skip’s trail to the beach and pick apples off his tree and he wouldn’t shoo us off his property,” he said.

Sullivan said Mr. George’s cancer had gone into remission, but when it came back it came back aggressively. Still, as late as two months ago, Mr. George visited the Tribal Council.

“We’re a young council, and he really helped us understand what our tribal members went through to become what we are now,” Sullivan said. “I never experienced the hardships of his generation, and I appreciate all the things they did for my generation and for my kids.”

Mr. George participated in recorded interviews with Wisniewski in 2010-11. The archeologist said Mr. George validated earlier information and brought forth new information. Once, Wisniewski located a shell midden that was located far from the beach. Mr. George informed him those shell middens marked areas where the people had camped when they were at risk of being raided by people from the North.

Wisniewski said Mr. George invested a lot of time in the interviews. “You lose people from that generation, and once they’re gone, everything that they know goes with them, unless that information is recorded and someone like him is willing and able to share that information.”

Sullivan said of Mr. George’s passing, “It is a loss to our tribe.”

— Cook Family Funeral Home is preparing an obituary. This story will be updated when the obituary is completed.

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