10 Things You Should Know About the Samish Nation

Courtesy Tracy Powell, artist. The story pole at Deception Pass State Park.

The Samish Nation’s story is nothing short of remarkable.

In the 1840s, more than 2,000 Samish people lived on their ancestral islands in the central Salish Sea: Fidalgo, Guemes, Lopez, San Juan, and Samish. But by the time of the Treaty of Point Elliott of 1855, which made land available for non-Native settlers, introduced diseases had reduced the Samish population to 200.

An estimated 158 Samish were present at Mukilteo when the Treaty of Point Elliott was negotiated and signed; the treaty was considered signed for Samish by Pateus, a leader of the Noowhaha, who were tied by kinship to the Samish. But rather than move to reservations, many Samish stayed in their traditional homelands. Over the next 60 years, they were pushed out by settlers, resulting in a regional diaspora. But they never gave up their identity, their lifeways, or their sense of community and nationhood.

In the 1910s, the Samish Nation became a founding member of the Northwest Federation of American Indians and joined a 40-year legal battle to get the United States to fulfill its treaty promises, including compensating indigenous nations for the lands that were ceded to the U.S. in the treaty.

Then, a big step back. In 1969, a BIA clerk accidentally left Samish off a revised list of federally recognized indigenous nations. Rather than correct the oversight, the U.S. government required Samish to go through a lengthy process to get its federal acknowledgment restored. Restoration didn’t come, however, until 1996 – 18 years after a federal court decision upheld the treaty fishing rights of indigenous nations that signed Western Washington treaties in the 1850s. Because Samish wasn’t “federally recognized” when the court decision was made, Samish wasn’t included. It is still fighting to restore its treaty fishing rights.

Despite legal challenges, Samish has pushed on – protecting its culture, building its economy and land base, and strengthening its political profile.

Fast forward to today: Samish’s population is now 1,200, and Samish has acquired more than 360 acres in its traditional territory, including Huckleberry Island. The Samish Nation is governed by a seven-member council; departments include cultural resources, education, elders, Head Start, health, housing, natural resources, social services, and vocational rehabilitation.

Within five years, Samish will break ground on a boutique hotel-casino on commercial acreage it owns on heavily trafficked Highway 20 in Anacortes, and will begin construction of homes and a large community center on Samish land overlooking Campbell Lake.

In a recent survey, several Samish citizens “expressed an interest in coming home,” Samish Nation Chairman Tom Wooten said. “I expect Samish will continue to grow. There’s a whole generation out there waiting to come back.”

In this story, Wooten and others share 10 things you should know about the Samish Nation.

The Giving People: That’s the meaning of the Samish Nation’s name, Wooten said. Historically, the Samish “were known for their canoe making and their gift-giving potlatches, which were attended by Indians from throughout Puget Sound, Vancouver Island and the Fraser River country,” Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown wrote in “A Guide to the Indian Tribes of the Pacific Northwest.”

Courtesy Washington State Department of Transportation. MV Samish, the newest Washington State ferry, gets underway providing ferry service in the Samish Nation's ancestral waters in mid-May.

Samish namesakes: The State of Washington named Lake Samish after the Samish Nation in 1968. The M/V Samish, the newest state ferry will be dedicated in mid-May and will serve the Anacortes-San Juan Islands route, in Samish’s traditional waters. Other natural features and landmarks bearing the Samish name: Samish Bay, Samish Island, Samish River, Lake Samish Park, the Samish Crest Trail, Samish Overlook on Blanchard Mountain, the Samish Neighborhood and Samish School in Bellingham, and Samish Elementary School in Sedro-Woolley.

Home is where the heart is. Because Samish is not reservation-based, its citizens live predominately in a six-county area – but they consider Samish country to be home.

Amy Nichols, daughter of former Samish council member Lisa Weber, talked about the importance of place in a 2013 video by Longhouse Media.

“Being able to learn about my ancestors, you’re walking in their footsteps, you’re wondering about who they were and what their life was like,” Nichols said at Camp Samish, a summer cultural camp on Samish Island. “And it kind of puts your life in a different perspective, because when we’re in the city, we have a different style and we don’t think about the environment around us. But when you’re here and you’re looking at the beauty of this land, you can’t get away from the here and the now and everything around you.”

Rosie Cayou James, Samish, is the Nation’s cultural resources director. She’s also a well-known frybread cook. “When I’m in the kitchen, I feel complete,” she said in the Longhouse Media film. “When my cousins are doing cedar hats, they feel complete, or if they are in the canoe they feel complete. So, I come home to Samish where I can feel complete.”

Courtesy Samish Nation. The Samish Nation's Vocational Rehabilitation Department provides counseling and culturally related activities that support Samish and other Native Americans in their employment goals.

Education is paramount: The Samish Nation has a fairly well-educated population – according to Wooten, 33 percent have had some college, compared to 25.1 percent of the state’s population and 21.2 percent of the U.S. population.

“We also provide vocational training and scholarships for Samish members, and tutoring for children who need assistance,” Wooten said.

Bringing the language back: The Samish language is a dialect of Straits Salish and is closely related to the languages spoken by the Lummi, Saanich, Songish, Sooke, and Semiahmoo. The Nation has a Samish language program and has recorded more than 60 hours of interviews with fluent speakers.

Courtesy of the artist, Tracy Powell. This story pole at Deception Pass State Park honors Ko-Kwal-alwoot, the Maiden of Deception Pass, who married a sea being to guarantee seafood and fresh water for her people.

Cultural caretakers: The Samish Nation is dedicated to cultural preservation and helping the general public understand the Samish story. In 1983, Samish worked with sculptor Tracy Powell to create a 30-foot story pole of Ko-kwal-alwoot, the Maiden of Deception Pass, who married a sea being to ensure salmon runs for her people. In 2005, Samish brought home from the Burke Museum a house post that belonged to the last Samish longhouse on Guemes Island. In 2014, Samish brought home an ancestral canoe, believed to date back to pre-contact, from the San Juan Island Historical Museum.

Samish has a canoe family and participates in the annual Canoe Journey. Each summer, Samish and the Swinomish Tribe present a cultural education event for the public at Deception Pass State Park. And during the year, Samish presents public events dedicated to culture, environmental stewardship, and healthy lifestyles.

Growing economy and land base: Samish’s land base includes 78 acres held in trust at Campbell Lake on Fidalgo Island. The following has been acquired but is not yet held in trust: Fidalgo Bay Resort, 160.4 acres; Huckleberry Island, 10 acres with 2,900 feet of shoreline; an additional 46 acres on Campbell Lake; 45.7 acres of agricultural land on Thomas Creek; 15 commercial acres on Highway 20 and Thompson Road in Anacortes; the Samish Nation administration complex on Commercial Avenue in downtown Anacortes, four parcels on 1.02 acre; Samish Longhouse preschool and child care center, two parcels on .52 acre; the Samish Health and Human Services building and property on Commercial Avenue in downtown Anacortes; and 3.57 acres of oyster beds on Mud Bay on Lopez Island.

Wooten said Fidalgo Bay Resort – cabins, RV sites, beaches and bay access, and trails – is “the economic engine of the tribe” and upgrades are planned to “make the resort a first-class facility.”

Another big source of revenue: Samish, which is a party to the gaming compact between the State of Washington and indigenous nations in the state, leases its gaming machine allotment to other Native casinos. According to Wooten, that revenue helps pay the cost of Samish’s governmental operations. But that revenue is just “pennies on the dollar” compared to the revenue he expects will be generated by the boutique hotel-casino.

All of this economic activity means jobs, of course – for Samish citizens and others. Currently, Samish provide jobs for 55-60 people.

Molly Neely-Walker. A Samish Nation canoe passes a Washington State ferry on Samish's ancestral marine highway, in the San Juan Islands, during the 2008 Canoe Journey, an annual gathering of canoe cultures from throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Taking care of the land: The Samish Nation Department of Natural Resources monitors water quality in lakes, streams and bays in its historical territory; has worked with property owners to improve land-use practices to protect watersheds from pollution; replaced invasive plants with native vegetation; collaborated with other agencies to restore an estuarine salt marsh; and restored shorelines.

Sam Barr, Samish, is a GIS analyst for the Nation’s Department of Natural Resources. “I got really fortunate to get a job working for my tribe taking care of natural resources,” he said in the Longhouse Media video. “There’s a real strong [emphasis] in our culture to take care of the land, so I take a lot of pride in being able to do that work.”

Notable Samish people: Annie Lyons (c. 1863-1956), was an artist. She was the daughter of Whulholten, one of the leaders of the Samish village on Guemes Island and owner of reef-net fishing sites on Lopez Island. She shared her knowledge of Samish traditional lifeways with anthropologists and historians, and in 1926 was a witness in the U.S. Court of Claims case of Duwamish et al vs. United States. One of her braided cattail mats is in the collection of the Burke Museum.

Charlie Edwards (1866-1948), master carver, carved The Telegraph, a famous racing canoe, circa 1905, on display at the Island County Museum on Whidbey Island; the Question Mark 2, a racing canoe carved in 1936 after the original Question Mark went into retirement; and a 60-foot pole in 1938 that depicted important cultural figures. He was a witness in U.S. Court of Claims case of Duwamish et al vs. United States in 1926. His son, Alfred, served as chairman of the Samish Indian Nation. A great-granddaughter, Barbara James, is treasurer and former vice chairwoman of the Swinomish Tribe.

Sarsfield J. Kavanaugh (1867-1943) served as Samish chairman and president of the Northwestern Federation of American Indians in the 1920s. He was a witness in U.S. Court of Claims case of Duwamish et al vs. United States in 1926.

Herman “Jinks” Blackinton (1892-1974), was a longtime member of the Samish Tribal Council. His grandson, Jeff Morris, has served in the Washington state House of Representatives since 1997, and was House speaker pro tem in 2008-11.

Ken Hansen (1952-2006), longtime chairman of the Samish Indian Nation, was instrumental in the effort to restore Samish’s government-to-government relationship with the United States.

Tsul-ton, also known as William Bailey, is the current master carver at Samish. His prominent works include a healing pole at Fidalgo Bay Resort, carved and raised in memory of seven workers who died in an explosion and fire at a nearby refinery in 2010. He designed the Samish Nation’s logo, and his carvings and prints can be found in private collections and on display at the nearby Swinomish Casino & Lodge.

Courtesy Swinomish Tribe Archives. Charlie Edwards 1866-1948), master carver, carved The Telegraph, a famous racing canoe, circa 1905, on display at the Island County Museum on Whidbey Island; the Question Mark 2, a racing canoe carved in 1936 after the original Question Mark went into retirement; and a 60-foot pole in 1938 that depicted important cultural figures. He was a witness in U.S. Court of Claims case of Duwamish et al vs. United States in 1926. His son, Alfred, served as chairman of the Samish Indian Nation. A great-granddaughter, Barbara James, is treasurer and former vice chairwoman of the Swinomish Tribe.

Continuing the ancestors’ work: Wooten, who has been chairman since 2006, is proud of the progress Samish has made and is making. His thoughts turn to the ancestors: “My hope is they’re proud of where we’ve come and where we’re heading.”

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