Samish house post returned
ANACORTES, Wash. - Coast Salish oratory is known for its detail and
formality. But on June 25, Samish Vice Chairman Tom Wooten was at a loss
A 150-year-old house post that belonged to a longhouse in the last Samish
village, Gwanqane'la, on nearby Guemes Island was returned to the Samish.
The gathering to celebrate the post's return was marked by speaking,
prayers, blessings, songs and emotion.
"This is a special day for us," Wooten said. "We are joining together as
the tribe and nation we have always been. We need to remember this day."
Larry Campbell, lead speaker of the gathering, added: "This is an important
day for the Samish people as we move forward. A spiritual object has been
The post now guards the entrance of the Samish Nation's new community
center next to Weaverling Spit, which juts out into Fidalgo Bay and was for
centuries the site of Samish ceremonies. Samish purchased Weaverling Spit
and an adjacent resort last February for $6.5 million.
The post faces west, the direction it faced when it supported the Guemes
The new community center is a hub of activity for the Samish people.
Several tribal government offices are being moved there, and the tribal
council meets upstairs.
Speakers warned those in attendance that the post has the power to ensure
that those who enter the building have nothing but good intentions. "When
you enter the door, it will ask you to set your mind straight," said John
Cayou, a Swinomish spiritual leader.
Larry Campbell, lead speaker of the gathering, added: "If you come in here
with ulterior motives, you're going to feel something. Clear your mind.
Your life is not your own. Your life belongs to the people."
Informants told anthropologist Wayne Suttles in the 1950s that the
longhouse was built of lumber and shakes, was 40 feet wide and more than
400 feet long - about 33 yards longer than a football field. It was built
sometime after 1850.
The longhouse was built on land that had to be homesteaded to comply with
territorial laws. The land was lost to taxes in 1905. It was the beginning
of the end of the Samish presence on Guemes Island.
In the 1940s, Harry Smith - at the time a student of Coast Salish culture,
later an authority on jazz - removed the house post, presumably to save it.
He donated the post to the Burke Museum in Seattle.
Samish researchers located the house post in a basement at the Burke Museum
last year; they contacted the Harry Smith Foundation, which agreed to
return it to the Samish people.
"When we were re-recognized in 1996, part of who we were was missing,"
Wooten said of the post. A search continues for the second post.
The post's return also represents how far the Samish people have come since
they won recognition. Although federally recognized, the Samish do not have
rights accorded other tribal nations that signed the Point Elliott Treaty
in 1855. Samish is now in federal court suing for those rights.
Samish purchased 80 acres above Lake Campbell in 2001 and has plans to
build homes there. In 2003, Samish took ownership of 11 acres at Ship
Harbor in Anacortes. Then last year, Samish acquired Weaverling Spit: 40
acres of tidelands, 22 acres of uplands and a developed RV park that opens
new economic opportunities for the tribe.
Samish, which has 900 enrolled members, also owns its three-building campus
on Commercial Avenue, where its administrative offices are headquartered.
It owns and operates a Head Start preschool and an elders nutrition
program. It also operates a salmon stream restoration program in the nearby
San Juan Islands, which were in the Samish's historic fishing, hunting and
Samish doesn't have a casino but it makes money from gaming by leasing its
allocation of electronic machines to other tribes.
There were some moving tributes at the house post dedication. Wooten
presented a gift to Bill Holm, famed Northwest Coast artist and retired
curator of Northwest Coast Indian art at the Burke Museum. Holm helped
locate and repatriate the house post.
"Bill's been a good friend to the Coast Salish people," Wooten said.
Tribute was paid to Mary Hansen, who was present, and her son, Samish
Chairman Ken Hansen, whose absence was felt by all; in failing health, he
was unable to attend.
"We are very proud today: proud to be able to share with our guests, proud
we have our Samish mother with us and all our Samish brothers," Campbell
said. "Our chairman got the message two months ago that when we got the
pole, that if he stood behind it, he would get his strength back. He has
laid down as long as the pole did. When the pole is raised, he will rise
Witnesses of the gathering included Malden Harry and Vic Underwood Jr., who
are helping to revive the Samish language.
Underwood said, "The house pole held up the house, but our leaders are what
hold us up. Their work is sacred."
Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash.
Contact him at email@example.com.