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10 Things You Need To Know About the Lummi Nation

What do we really know about the Lummi people? Here are 10 things you need to know about the Lummi Nation.

The Lummi Nation is widely known for its art and artists (Jewell Praying Wolf James’ totem poles, for one), its college (Northwest Indian College), its personalities (pro soccer player/fitness model Temryss Lane), and its efforts to defend the environment and sacred places.

Representatives of the Lummi Nation and the United States signed the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855, which made available a large swath of Western Washington for non-Native settlement. In the treaty, Lummi retained land and certain rights within its historical territory.

Today, the Lummi reservation comprises 21,000 acres (Lummi Nation Atlas, 2008) – including uplands and tidelands on the Lummi Peninsula and Portage Island – but Lummi exercises cultural, environmental and political influence throughout its historical territory, which includes the San Juan Islands. The Lummi Nation has more than 5,000 citizens, 78 percent of whom live on or near the reservation boundaries.

What do we really know about the Lummi people? To answer this question, we consulted several sources. Here’s what they said.

“We are Salmon People”: The Lummi are the Lhaq’temish, the People of the Sea. Since time immemorial, their culture and survival have depended on salmon.

“We fished for thousands and thousands of years, you know, so salmon is a main staple of our diet, and always has been and still is very important,” Lummi artist and former commercial fisherman Felix Solomon said in a video by the National Museum of the American Indian. “It’s a food that satisfies your spirit inside. It’s our identity here in Lummi — we’re salmon people.”

Linda Delgado, salmon enhancement manager of the Lummi Nation’s Natural Resources Department, told NMAI, “A lot of our culture revolves around having salmon. That’s the way we lived and sustained ourselves.”

Strong identity: “We still know who we are and where we come from,” said Tsilixw James, noted artist, educator and hereditary chief of the Lummi Nation. “Our ancestors are still there. We are still a living people. We still use all their ancestral place names.”

Molly Neely-Walker

Lutie Hillaire, center, raises her hands in thanks as she and her family sing at Friday Harbor's Jack Fairweather Park, in 2009. The Lummi Nation was honored as the First People of the island during the town's Fourth of July celebration.

Strong leadership: The Lummi Nation has a Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office which works to do exactly as its name implies. The Nation’s Natural Resources Department is exploring clean energy development. Lummi’s Northwest Indian College hosts the annual Vine Deloria Jr. Indigenous Studies Symposium, which brings together Native and non-Native leaders, scholars and others “who are interested in honoring the causes Deloria devoted his life to, and building upon the foundation he and others helped build.” Lummi Chairman Tim Ballew is a member of the Whatcom Council of Governments, a regional organization.

“We're leaders on a national and international level -- climate change, GWE (General Welfare Exclusion Act), taxation and fisheries issues,” said artist and poet Shasta Cano-Martin, member of the Lummi Indian Business Council, the governing body of the Lummi Nation.

Molly Neely-Walker

A Lummi canoe arrives at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, for Friday Harbor's Fourth of July celebration in 2009. San Juan Island is the Lummi people's place of origin.

Strong canoe culture: Historically, the canoe was the main form of transportation in the Salish Sea. The canoe never ceased being a vital part of Lummi culture. Lummi is represented in the earliest photographs of Northwest Coast war canoe races and Salish Sea reefnet fishing, which involved an artificial reef leading to nets placed between canoes into which migrating salmon would swim. Lummi has hosted the Stommish Water Festival and Canoe Races since 1946 to honor returning veterans. Several Lummi canoe families participate in the annual Canoe Journey. The Lummi Nation hosted the Canoe Journey in 2007, which featured Lummi’s largest public potlatch in 70 years.

Diverse economy. Lummi Nation economic enterprises include Silver Reef Hotel Casino Spa, with 105 guest rooms, a convention and event center, six restaurants, two bar/restaurants, and a coffee shop; Fisherman’s Cove Marina, home of the largest fishing fleet in the region; and Gateway Center, home of Gateway Café, Salish Arts Market, and Seafood Market.

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In addition, the Lummi Community Development Financial Institution provides opportunities for housing and business development through loan products, financial education, and business coaching.

“Fishing [is] our most valued economic way of life,” said cu-se-ma-at Cathy Ballew, whose nephew, Tim, is chairman of the Lummi Nation. “I always use to say 98 percent of Lummis are fishers. Today, the percent has dropped due to overharvesting and climate change. And our people have to learn new professions, in our college or [in] hands-on employment.”

Molly Neely-Walker

Lummi master weaver Fran James congratulates students who will be living and studying at the Lummi Youth Academy, at the academy's opening in 2008. James, who walked on in 2013, was a longtime teacher of Lummi culture and values.

Diverse talents: “We are artists of many crafts,” said Vernell Lane, event planning consultant for the Lummi Indian Business Council. Lummi has produced prominent athletes, carvers, painters, performing artists, traditional storytellers, weavers, and “farmers of the sea.”

Education is paramount: The Lummi School of Aquaculture evolved into Northwest Indian College, which in addition to its main campus has six satellite sites and offers bachelor’s degrees in Native Studies Leadership, Native Environmental Science, Tribal Governance, and Business Management; and associate’s degrees in Arts and Science, Applied Science, Technical Arts; and Certificate Programs.

Lummi also has an early education center, an on-reservation high school, and Lummi Youth Academy, which provides a stable living and learning environment for at-risk youth.

Teach the children well: “Our teaching is to protect the environment, preserve our culture and promote traditional teachings,” cu-se-ma-at said. “Educate our children in our own language, songs, dance and [stories], to know how and why it identifies who we are … [We want] to make sure the young people understand and safeguard our culture to keep it alive. Our music, songs and dance have a significant meaning and everyone has a special role in the community [to] show who we are and where we come from.”

Environmental protectors: The Lummi Nation has been defending the Point Elliott Treaty since the document was signed in 1855. A big part of that effort has been ensuring the United States upholds its health, education and trust responsibilities. Another big part is defending the environment. If development and industry continue to degrade habitat, then there will be no salmon to harvest and the treaty will be violated.

The Lummi Nation’s Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office points out that all people – Native and non-Native – benefit from the treaty and a healthy environment. The protection office has been leading the effort to educate people about the negative impacts of a proposed coal train terminal at Cherry Point, an ancestral village site and herring spawning ground; herring are an important forage food for salmon. In 2013 and 2014, Jewell Praying Wolf James, director of the protection office and master carver, took environment-themed totem poles on a tour of Northwest communities threatened by coal and oil transport to rally people to assert their right to a healthy environment.

Molly Neely-Walker

Henry Cagey, then-chairman of the Lummi Nation, helped open the Lummi Youth Academy in 2008. The academy provides a stable living and learning environment for at-risk youth.

As co-manager of the state’s fisheries, and to help bolster finfish and shellfish populations for harvests, the Lummi Nation operates two fish hatcheries and a shellfish hatchery.

Caring for the environment that sustains them is a timeless Lummi value. “We must walk together as one -- make sure to have that positive impression and make sure we give back to others and the environment,” cu-se-ma-at said. 

Honor the culture bearers: “We are determined to sustain our natural way of life – by respecting our traditional way of life, by listening to our elders with respect, and honoring all the teaching being disclosed to us,” cu-se-ma-at said. “As my grandmother Sadie would say, we learn something every day and if you haven’t, then your day is not over. Our education starts at birth and never ends. We don’t go sit in a classroom and learn – our teachings are hands-on and you learn all the time.”

Molly Neely-Walker

Lummi master carver Jewell James, in cedar hat at left, and his family stand next to the healing pole he carved for the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland, in 2011. James and his House of Tears Carvers have shared Native culture and values through art, carving healing poles for the sites struck by terrorists on 9/11 and environment-themed poles for areas threatened by pollution. This healing pole features elements related to traditional healing.