L: Kenneth “Poggie” Baker, 82, “showing the ropes” to a new generation. Raleigh Anderson, 20, gets an education in fireworks-and tribal history- while working in Baker’s warehouse.
On a late June morning at Shoalwater Bay, Kenneth “Poggie” Baker rode his motorized “Jazzy” scooter along the shoulder of Highway 105, against traffic. An American flag fluttered behind him as he lumbered along, cap pulled low over his face to keep out the sun. The 82-year-old entrepreneur headed to work, passing seven firework stands in the half mile between the casino and Chief Charley’s Smoke Shop. There, he crossed the road and motored to his “office”; a huge garage stuffed with cases of pyrotechnics.
Baker’s helper, tribal member Raleigh Anderson, checks the inventory: Excalibur, Chicken on a Chain, One Bad Mother, Loyal to None, “cakes” “backpacks” “canisters” and more. Throughout the day, firework stand owners will stop by to replenish their stock. Business is brisk as July 4th approaches.
Almost 60 years ago, Baker and his extended family opened one of the first Indian reservation firework stands in Washington State.
“My aunt, Myrtle Landry, her son Gene [Eugene Landry] and her husband Fred came up with the idea,” the elder says. “They got everybody involved.” It was 1965. Five family members invested $500 apiece to buy inventory. “Reginald Hunter and I drove a truck down to Canby, Oregon and filled it full of fireworks.”
Baker’s brother in law, Reginald Hunter, riding atop Myrtle Landry’s Cadillac, 1979
They parked their 1950 Chevy pickup in an open field on the reservation. Their open-air display was set up on “a couple of saw horses with planks across them.” Their inventory was limited: M80s, red white and blue firecrackers, bottle rockets, fire crackers and fountains. Baker still remembers their first sale, to “four young guys in a yellow VW bug. They spent over $100. That was a lot of fireworks.” (Back then, firecrackers sold for a penny apiece.)
They sold out the first day and got another truckload. They did this several times, and then bought a trailer-full of inventory.
The next year they built two stands. Eugene Landry designed a mural for one of the stands. “It looked like a sunrise with red white and blue beams,” Baker recalled. “Gene was at the stand every day. He counted the money. It was Gene’s idea to raise the price of firecrackers to 4 cents.”
Brothers and partners: Dennis Baker (L) and “Poggie” Baker (L) 1965.
As the big holiday drew near, customers “came out of the woodwork.” They usually sold out before Independence Day. On July 4th, “We’d have a family show. We built a big fire out by the road; put a big pot on it, boiled hot dogs and had pop or beer for whoever wanted to stop by. It was a lot of fun.”
But there were also challenges from the Feds and the State.
In the mid-1970s, Baker got a call from a friend who worked at the State Capitol, who warned that US Marshals were heading to Shoalwater Bay to raid their stands. “We removed most of the inventory, just left a small amount on the shelves. Everybody was sitting out in the parking lot, waiting for them to arrive, even the kids.” Two Federal Marshals pulled up in an unmarked car. “One guy sat there with his hand on his gun. The man who came to the stand wore a pistol. He said they were here to confiscate our illegal fireworks. I asked to see his ID.”
The Marshall seized all the firecrackers and bottle rockets, but “had to leave the smoke balls because they weren’t illegal.” After the officer piled everything up, he asked Baker for a bag. “I told him no.” The elder chuckled. “Then he asked for a box… The answer was negative.” State Senator Slade Gorton sent Baker a letter, “telling me I was a communist-or Un-American. I wrote back and said I had a right to sell fireworks here, we are a sovereign nation.”
Baker mused, “I always thought it would be nice to have a painting of an Indian in a fireworks stand and a marshal with his hand on his gun, and three little kids peaking around the corner at them. Who was that guy who used to do all the Americana?
“Yeah. That would have been a hell of a Rockwell.”
Tires crunched on gravel as a truck backed up to the warehouse. Baker put his coffee cup down. He would have to continue his story later. Independence Day was just around the corner.
Originally published in the July 2021 Shoalwater Bay Tribal Newsletter. (Updated for 2022.)
The Significance of September 22nd for the Shoalwater Bay Tribe
By Earl Davis, Shoalwater Bay Tribal member, and Tribal Culture and Heritage Director
Life for the people living in the various villages scattered around Willapa (Shoalwater) Bay and the Coast from Tokeland to Westport, was largely unchanged for a millennia. The people were made up of a cultural group now known as South West Coastal and/or Chinookan. Two related cultural groups under the larger “North West Coast” group. The biggest distinction and perhaps the only distinction between these two groups was language. The more northern group predominantly spoke Thlawaltmish, a southern Salish language. The Southern group spoke Chinook. The two groups were highly intermarried which resulted in the material and ethnographic cultures of the two being nearly identical.
It wasn’t until relatively recent that things changed for us. In 1788 the bay was “discovered” by John Meares of the East India Trading Company. While this is often considered the first direct contact with outsiders, general knowledge of Europeans and settlers in other parts of the country were known by the people. In addition to that, oral tradition does have some ancient stories about things like lost ancient Chinese vessels being stranded on nearby shores.
These first encounters were often not much more than a bit of trading and years often passed in between encounters. Lewis and Clark’s famed expedition reached the mouth of the Columbia in 1805 and the area then was still largely untouched by outside influence.
The expedition resulted in the great expansions west by the United States, but by the time James Swan lived on Willipa Bay in 1854, it was still largely unsettled. However, by this time several waves of various illnesses had resulted in an estimated 80-90% death rate of our people. This meant, that while settlement of the bay was still very low, so was our native population.
During Swan’s time on the bay, westward expansion was at a fever pitch and the Governor of the new Washington territory was eager to relocate tribes and open the area to settlement for non-native peoples.
As a people we went to the Anson Dart Treaty negotiations in 1851. The terms were found to be acceptable by the people of our region. One of the terms was that we were all to relocate to Willapa Bay. This was acceptable for the people already living in villages here. The problem with this treaty though is that Congress never ratified it.
In 1855 we met with Governor Isaac Stevens in Cosmopolis. Stevens’ terms were to relocate “All fish-eating tribes of western Washington” to the newly proposed reservation at Taholah.
Our leaders found these terms to be unacceptable. Our terms were very simple, we wished to be able to continue to hunt and fish, and to live and be buried with our ancestors. The settlers could do what they wished with land that was of no consequence to us.
With neither side being able to agree, the negotiations broke down and we refused to leave our traditional territory. Governor Stevens vowed to return and strike a deal or force us to submit, however, he was called back east to the Civil War where he was killed in action in 1862.
The people of Shoalwater Bay were largely forgotten by this time. For us, things kind of went back to normal. Most accounts from both sides say we got along fairly well with the new settler neighbors and there was not much thought about it.
However, during 1865-66 the government remembered we were here. The local Indian agent wrote to President Andrew Johnson about our situation. The letters stated that there was a group of natives “some 30 to 40 families” living on a village site on Shoalwater Bay. He continued by saying that we did not wish to give up our ways and simply wanted to secure our village for our selves and not be driven off. The land of our village was of no farming value and according to the letters “would work no injury to the whites”.
So on September 22, 1866, the president signed a one-paragraph executive order that basically says set this land aside for the Indians. The order was a milestone in that, through our stubborn refusal to submit we had secured our ancestral home as our own. However, the order was so vague and so short that it has often meant we secured nothing else. The original order also only secured just over 330 acres of land.
So today let us remember our ancestor’s determination to live their lives as we had forever and also let it reignite our pursuit for our rights to do so. Due to the vagueness of the order, our small size and unique location means that many of our issues in terms of relations with the U.S. government are unique even in Indian country. Our ancestor’s determination secured this life for us today, let us be as determined to secure a better life for our future generations as well.