National Native American Heritage Month: The Makah and Quileute Surfmen at the Waddah Island Lifesaving Station

In 1878, a newly built lifesaving station began operations on Waddah Island on the Makah Indian Reservation in the U.S. Territory of Washington. (This territory in the Pacific Northwest became the 42nd state in 1889.) The Waddah Island Lifesaving Station, which was specifically located at Neah Bay, became one of the earliest U.S. federal government facilities to employ an entire unit of Native Americans.

This station was also among the first to be built along U.S.-owned sections of the Pacific shoreline to help rescue shipwrecked mariners and passengers in that part of the world. The stations were constructed and operated by the U.S. Life-Saving Service (USLSS), which was merged with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service in 1915 to form the U.S. Coast Guard.

In announcing the plans to establish a lifesaving station at Neah Bay, an article in the Los Angeles Herald in 1875 reported that Native Americans in the area would be recruited to serve in the crew for that facility. As noted in that article, a big reason for recruiting these individuals was that they were “expert surf men.”

The original crew at the Waddah Island Lifesaving Station consisted of members of the Makah and Quileute tribes. The surfmen in this history-making crew included As-chik-abik, Que-dessa, Tsos-et-oos, and Tsul-ab-oos.

Members of other coastal tribes likewise served with distinction at federal facilities that were maintained by not only the USLSS but also the U.S. Lighthouse Service (merged with the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939). These tribes included the Ojibwa in the Great Lakes region and the Wampanoags in Massachusetts.

Photo Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

Additional information on Native Americans serving at the Waddah Island Lifesaving Station is available at https://wadahp.wordpress.com/2011/05/19/navigation-and-lifesaving-lightships-lifesaving-stations-no-17/

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