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Renton High built on sacred Native American land

Why we restrict construction on the site to include the big field
Outline Renton High School playfields

The areas along the former Black and Duwamish rivers, now home to Renton High and many other sites in Renton, are considered a high probability for archaeological sites, historical sites of Duwamish Indian villages. Recognizing the importance of land to cultural preservation, construction on the Renton High School site, including the large field at the west of the property, is more restricted than other parts of the district. Any construction work planned at Renton High must include the involvement of the Duwamish peoples and be evaluated by an anthropological/archaeological services company to ensure we do not desecrate and disturb historically significant land.

Construction crews remodeling Renton High School in 2001—to build new classrooms, the IKEA Performing Arts Center, seismic upgrades and more—turned up what an archaeologist believed to be a midden, or ancient dumping area, near the former site of a Duwamish Indian village. The district halted construction while the site was evaluated by an anthropological/archaeological services company. In 1981, a Sbabadid village site was excavated near the school.

History of Duwamish in Renton

The Duwamish people have been here since time immemorial. Thousands of years before white settlers made their way to the Pacific Northwest, the Duwamish people called Seattle, Renton, Bellevue, Kirkland and other adjacent suburban communities, home. They had summer and winter camps with at least four habitation sites in Renton, including homes called longhouses often big enough for a few families to live together.

Life changed quickly for the Duwamish after the Denny Party’s arrival in 1851. The steady stream of white settlers displaced all Pacific Northwest tribes leading to the Treaty of Point Elliott which created Washington’s reservations system. The Duwamish were among the tribes that did not receive their own reservation. Given white encroachment, some Duwamish were pushed to move to the Port Madison (Suquamish), Muckleshoot, or other reservations, all far from their ancestral homeland; others refused to leave. The Duwamish - Seattle's only indigenous tribe - lived and traded along the Black River, which disappeared when the Lake Washington Ship Canal was built in 1911.

Renton High School built on Duwamish land

The Duwamish lived along the Black River well before the city of Renton was formed. The area had fertile soil for crops, lots of berries and bulbs, and the rivers were full of fish. For 5,000 years the Black River was an important waterway for native peoples who used the short river for boats and fisheries. Duwamish long houses were constructed all along the Black River. Several indigenous villages were located near the confluence of the Black and Duwamish rivers which were long used as a place of refuge. The area became home to many native peoples displaced by the growing city of Seattle.

In 1853, Henry Tobin moved west from Maine and made a donation land claim on the Black River for 320 acres, taking the land that belonged to Duwamish leader Chief James Moses and others. In 1875, the City of Renton (named after Captain William Renton, an early investor in the coal mines) was formed. Settlers moved in; the trains arrived in 1897; a new sawmill cut down trees as old as millennia. The town incorporated in 1901.

Renton High School opened in 1911, built on lands once belonging to the Duwamish, including the Moses family’s plot located just west of Renton High School. The family included Henry Moses, born in 1900, a great grandnephew of Chief Sealth (the namesake of Seattle) who later became hereditary leader of the Duwamish tribe. Henry attended Renton High School from 1916-1920, becoming a star athlete in baseball, track, and basketball. He led Renton High to a state basketball championship in 1916. The school took the name Indians to honor Henry’s athletic ability and as a direct response to racist slurs from other schools. The mascot name was changed in 2020. Chief Moses died in January 1969 and is buried with wife Christina and other members of the family at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Renton. The Henry Moses Aquatic Center is named after him.