MV Samish Guests Dedication
Richard Walker
Guests watch the dedication ceremony for the M/V Samish from an upper deck of the ferry on May 20.

Big Two Months for the Samish Nation: Repatriation, Ferry Naming

Richard Walker

Leslie Eastwood’s voice carried an Honor Song over the hushed crowd aboard the M/V Samish, the state’s newest ferry, the same way songs can be heard over the water from arriving canoes. She was backdropped by Guemes Island, the site of the last Samish longhouse. Above her, the sign with the name of the ferry, which will travel the ancestral highways and carry the story of the Samish people well into the middle of this century.

“To see the sign ‘Samish’ took my breath away,” said Eastwood, Samish Nation general manager and a Samish citizen. “It’s an awesome representation of the enduring nature of our people. I’m so pleased that our archival photos are on display on the ferry to show who we were and that we continue today. We’re alive and well.”

The dedication of the newest state ferry on May 20 was the second historically significant event in a month for the Samish Indian Nation, whose ancestors refused to leave their traditional lands for reservations after the treaties were signed and who had to fight for more than a quarter-century to restore their government-to-government relationship with the United States after a clerical error left them off a list of federally-recognized indigenous nations.

Washington State’s First Lady Trudi Inslee and other dignitaries were on hand to dedicate the M/V Samish, which will serve the Anacortes/San Juan Islands route—the historical waters of the Samish and other Central Coast Salish peoples—beginning in June. The M/V Samish is the second of three new 144-car ferries and cost $126 million to build. The third vessel, Chimacum—named for the people of the same name—is under construction.

Trudi Inslee, wife of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, christens the M/V Samish, Washington’s newest state ferry on May 20. (Richard Walker)

The dedication included remarks by Lynne Griffith, the state’s assistant secretary of transportation; state Rep. Judy Clibborn, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee; state Rep. Jeff Morris, Tsimshian, whose late grandfather was Samish; and Samish Chairman Tom Wooten.

Before the dedication, the public toured the vessel and Samish representatives shared gifts and songs in the passenger cabin. Guests dined on smoked salmon and visited with Samish artists; some demonstrated their beading techniques, others talked about their carved or woven objects on display. Guests were gifted with blankets, miniature canoe paddles, and other mementos.

The M/V Samish is a cultural showcase. Its walls feature works by Samish artists as well as other Coast Salish artists, among them Shaun Peterson, Puyallup. Eastwood hopes the ferry’s closed-circuit TV system can be used to show cultural programs, such as the new Longhouse Media film, “Maiden of Deception Pass,” about a Samish ancestor who married a sea being to guarantee seafood and fresh water for her people.

The M/V Samish, Washington’s newest state ferry, was dedicated on May 20. It is named in honor of the Samish Indian Nation and will serve the Anacortes-San Juan Islands route, the ancestral waters of the Samish and other Central Coast Salish nations. (Richard Walker)

A month earlier, the Paul H. Karshner Museum in Puyallup returned to the Samish Nation numerous ancestral items—among them a bentwood box, hand-woven baskets and hats, and a mat woven by Annie Lyons (c. 1863-1956), daughter of Whulholten, one of the leaders of the Samish village on Guemes Island.

The museum was founded in 1930 by Dr. Warner M. Karshner, a medical doctor and state senator, and his wife in honor of their son, who died of polio his senior year at Puyallup High School. The museum is managed by the Puyallup School District and is included in the curriculum.

It was the second significant repatriation for Samish since 2014. Last year, Samish brought home an ancestral canoe, believed to date back to pre-contact, from the San Juan Historical Museum. In 2005, Samish brought home from the Burke Museum a house post that belonged to the last Samish longhouse on Guemes Island.

Rosie Cayou James, Samish’s cultural director, said the recent events are evidence of the “ancestors’ support and guidance” in Samish’s course of nation building and cultural strengthening since it won restoration of its government-to-government relationship with the United States in 1996.

Rosie Cayou James, cultural director of the Samish Nation, watches the dedication ceremony for the M/V Samish, Washington's newest state ferry on May 20. (Richard Walker)

Since then, Samish has acquired lands for housing and commercial development, is active in protection and enhancement of natural resources with its historical territory, protection of cultural sites, and has built a collaborative relationship with neighboring local governments. Samish also has an active cultural education and language program.

“I love seeing our children learning how to weave a basket, learning how to carve, learning how to speak the language,” Cayou James said.

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