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

10 Things You Should Know About the Samish Nation

Richard Walker

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.”

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.


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