Iman family notes

Sullivan's Island


On or near the Iman claim on the Columbia was Sullivan's Island, a burial ground for Plateau Indians who were hunters and gatherers and likely moved from place to place around the area now comprising the eastern part of Washington and the city of Walla Walla. George Iman, a son of Felix and Margaret, decribed it in the following terms:

"265 - On one of the small islands, known as the Sullivan Islands, also called "lower Memaloose Island," was once a burying ground from the Indians. Their mode of putting away the dead was to take them out on the Island and put them in what was known as "dead houses." I well remember just how this dead house looked as I have visited this island many times. A hole dug in the ground, 4 or 5 feet deep and the size on the ground they wished it to be. They then put some pieces on the ground around the top of the basement, afterwards building a house with walls and roof. They would take the "Memalooosed" party down in the basement and put it next to the wall; then stacked them as they died, one on top of the other, till the house was filled. The boxed used for burial were of most any length; it mattered not what the size of the person might be. The boxes were covered with most any kind of calico so long as it had red in the color. All of their belongings were put in with them."

Beads found as part of the burial repositories on this island have long been studied. It's an amazing bead collection--there are about 56,000 beads in all providing evidence of global reach in the trading patterns of those natives. Bead varieties found on the island have been attributed to Venice (a major bead production venue), Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) and China.


Some of the tribal names of Plateau Indians were Snake, Cayuse, Umatilla, Yakima, Spokane, Palouse, and Walla Walla. They gathered edible vegetables and fruits, including camas, kouse, bitter-roots, serviceberry, chokecherry, huckleberry, and wild strawberries. They made woven baskets of grasses and lived in movable tipis made of poles covered with mats made of tule reeds, sometimes called bulrush, though they wintered in more permanent multi-family homes comprising of partially buried frameworks of covered poles over ground pits. In addition to hunting and gathering, these Indians were fishermen, with salmon making up a major part of their food supply. They congregated in the area near Stevenson and caught many salmon during annual salmon runs. When horses came to the area, the world of the Plateau people expanded, allowing them to trade far and wide -- the Columbia River was a highway to coastal peoples --- and those east of the Rocky Mountains for things such as bison meat and hides. Hunters rode far for bison, deer, and elk.

Laurie Burgess is a key archaeologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. She has studied beads found in burial sheds on the Columbia River near 1938 when the Bonneville Dam was being constructed, and the island about to be submerged. George Iman, a son of Felix described the site and burial sheds in detail and earned the respect and appreciation of Smithsonian staff currently working to repatriate one of the most significant bead collection of native Americans in the nation -- back to Plateau peoples. Their work and the beads are described below in an article reprinted from Research Reports.

Buried beads hold important clues for dating archaeological sites

By Brenda Kean Tabor
Special to Research Reports
Smithsonian Institution Research Reports, No. 111, Winter 2003

Beads played a major role in 19th century trade between Europeans and Native Americans across large areas of North America. As beads were introduced by Europeans, they dominated the trade and were wholly incorporated into Native American culture. They were stitched onto hide shirts, leggings and dresses; used on cradleboards and bags; and strung on strips of hide or sinew.

Now these beads, which were culturally valued objects buried with their Native American owners, are being used to help establish the dates that archaeological sites were in use, Archaeologist Laurie Burgess says.

Burgess is a specialist in 19thcentury glass trade beads in the Department of Anthropology of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. She studies and documents trade beads, among other historical materials, that are housed in the museum's collections.

Glass trade beads are made of a durable material that tends to survive well in archaeological contexts. They are good "markers" for helping archaeologists date sites. "We know that if glass beads are found at a site, the site postdates European contact," she explains. Such a site would have been in use after 1492, when Columbus arrived in the New World, and during later centuries. 'The types of beads present at a site also help us narrow the time frame of occupation even more," Burgess says. The beads housed in the National Museum of Natural History's collection were recovered from Native American grave sites by 19th- and 20th-century archaeologists and brought to the Smithsonian for study.

Because of the 1989 National Museum of the American Indian Act, researchers are working to document the important information the objects contain. The act, Burgess explains, mandates that the Smithsonian, upon request, repatriate culturally affiliated human remains and funerary objects, including beads, to federally recognized, contemporary Native groups that are entitled to them. The act requires that objects be inventoried and documented before they are repatriated.

Sullivan's Island beads

Burgess recently completed study of an unusually large collection of trade beads known as the Sullivan's Island Bead Collection, which is scheduled to be repatriated to Native American tribes in the Plateau Region of the northwestern United States within the next two years. This collection of 50,000 beads was brought to the Smithsonian by Herbert Krieger in 1934 from a burial island on the Columbia River in Washington state. Krieger was a Smithsonian archaeologist sent to the site to recover archaeological materials before the area was to be flooded by the completion of the Bonneville Dam in 1938.

Burgess’ findings were presented at the 2002 annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology held in Denver, Colo. 'The Sullivan's Island Bead Collection," he says, "is one of the most significant 9th-caitury trade bead collections, because almost every known bead type is here. It's unusual to have such a range in one collection." A significant portion of the beads are large, ornate and valuable. Burgess compared this collection with one found at Fort Vancouver, a major trading post 50 miles down the river. Beads found at the fort were, in general, smaller and much plainer than the beads found on the island. Burgess believes this indicates that the beads at the fort were lost, dropped or scattered, making the Fort Vancouver collection "unintentional." Since the beads found on Sullivan's Island were more valuable, traders were less likely to drop or lose them.

"The two collections," Burgess adds, "are from the same region and time period, which makes them valuable, comparative collections." However, the differences between the two collections are significant. The beads at the fort show a selection of beads that were available for trade, but they do not wholly reflect the richness of the bead trade. Burgess said. 'The collection found at Sullivan's Island represents beads in use – the beads that were actively chosen by the Native Americans in the area."

Classifying beads

"One of the goals of bead research is to record information in a standardized way" Burgess says. When information is collected in standardized or systematic ways throughout the field of archaeology, it allows archaeologists to compare different collections to see what patterns emerge over time.

Working in a laboratory at the Smithsonian's Museum Support Center in Suitland, Md., Burgess analyzed the beads found on Sullivan's Island using a zoom microscope, which provides the high levels of magnification needed to properly identify characteristics such as the shape and orientation of tiny air bubbles in the glass. She also used digital calipers, which look like high-tech pliers with a tiny digital screen, to record the length, width, thickness and diameter of the beads An extensive reference library of texts and journals was used to obtain dates or date ranges of the beads.

The beads were classified and categorized based on manufacture type, degree of opacity or translucence, shape, presence or absence of decoration, color and size. The findings are logged into a database, Burgess says, so that the museum will still have access to this valuable information after the objects are returned to their tribes.

The origin of beads

Most of the world's 19th-century trade beads were made in Venice and Bohemia. Chinese beads, referred to in historical records as "canton" beads, were brought to North America from China by Euro- American traders and are concentrated on the Pacific Coast. Beads made in Bohemia generally had facets ground by hand, giving them more reflective surfaces. One particularly popular type of Bohemian bead was a large, heavily faceted cobalt blue bead, which was and still is misleadingly referred to as a "Russian Blue" because it was traded by Russian fur traders. Sullivan's Island had more than 2,000 of the blue beads and many other large, highly decorated ones, which seemed to have been particularly valued, as they were deliberately chosen as funerary objects.

Twelve of the Sullivan's Island beads were wound-on-drawn beads, the rarest type of beads in North America, formed by a combination of two common bead manufacturing techniques They are made of translucent red glass wound around a drawn white bead. "Only three other wound-on-drawn beads have ever been recovered," Burgess says. "At this point, the rare beads raise more questions than they answer."
Why are there so few of them? Where do they come from? Why are they made this way? Questions such as these pod Burgess to further research and understanding of the beads and the role they played in Euro-American and Native American interactions.

Jo Arm Webb contributed to this article.