Skip to main content

Ancestral Land Made Available For Lummi Nation’s Use

In December 2016, some 80 acres of land on Henry Island was donated with one stipulation, that the Lummi Nation were allowed to use it for cultural purposes.

The Lummi Nation has use of 80 acres on an island near their place of origin, thanks to the owner’s donation to a local land conservation organization.

In August 2015, Sarah Hart opened her beach on Henry Island – which the Lummi know as Lhelhinqel – to participants in the Coast Salish Mini-University for Lummi youth; the visit to Henry Island was part of a week of visits by the youth to ancestral sites in the San Juan Islands.

The gathering at Lhelhinqel was significant; the land on the island was privately owned, and the Lummi gathering there was the first since the time of the grandparents’ grandparents. Some 125 people were in attendance, among them Lummi hereditary chief Bill Tsilixw James, and chiefs from Heiltsuk and Haida Gwaii.

At Lhelhinqel, Hart witnessed a ceremony in which Troy Olsen and Dana Wilson of the Lummi Nation received ancestral names; Olsen received the name of his grandfather, Suhunep, who like many Lummi fished the waters off Henry Island.


The event made an impression on Hart. On December 28, 2016, when she donated 80 acres on Henry Island to the San Juan County Land Bank, as well as a conservation easement to the San Juan Preservation Trust, she included a condition that the Lummi Nation be allowed to use the land for cultural purposes.

The donation is one of several significant events of recent years in the San Juan Islands, as Lummi educators work to instill cultural knowledge in their young people.

On August 25, 2016, representatives of the Lummi Nation and the Saanich First Nation installed and dedicated a reefnet captain totem pole and two salmon story boards on San Juan Island at Pe'pi'ow'elh, a village site where British Royal Marines established their camp during the U.S./British joint military occupation of the island in 1859-1872. The site is part of San Juan Island National Historical Park but is known as English Camp.

And in summer 2015 and 2016, young people from Lummi camped for a week on San Juan Island to learn about their ancestral ties to the island and their culture. They went on nature walks, went out on the ancestral waters in canoes, ate traditional foods from the water, and learned about their language.

They also learned about reef-netting – a unique type of salmon fishing that was a gift to the Lummi people from the Creator. In reef-netting, nets are anchored to the sea floor to create an artificial reef that salmon follow into a large scoop net suspended between two canoes. The practice was later adopted by non-Native fishermen, although one Native family from San Juan Island still reefnets an ancestral site off Stuart Island.

The camp was called “Spirit of the Sxwo’le”; Sxwo’le, pronounced “shwalla,” is the Lummi word for reef net.

“I see healing,” mini-university organizer Shirley Williams, Lummi, told Northwest Treaty Tribes magazine after the 2015 visit to Lhelhinqel. “I’m thankful for the protocol that I witnessed. For the past year, I have been asking that the Spirit of the Sxwo’le and our children be surrounded by all that is positive as we return to the ancestral lands of our people and that we would join together in peace and unity once again. It was beyond my expectation to see so many people from different nations join us. It was the healing energy of the Spirit of the Sxwo’le, the sxwo’le that sustained life.”

Olsen, a co-coordinator of the mini-university who is working to revive reefnet fishing among young Lummi, said the move to reservations, the boarding school era and assimilation policies disconnected Lummi people from an important part of their culture – with painful consequences.

Many young campers did not know of their ancestral ties to the San Juan Islands. Mikko Hillaire, Lummi, told the Northwest Treaty Tribes magazine of reefnetting, “I never really knew about it before.” Nickolasa Revey, Lummi, told the magazine, “My favorite thing this week was probably getting to know where I come from and being out in nature.” One young Lummi woman said she wants to become an environmental lawyer so she can work to protect her ancestral lands.

There’s a lot to protect. Village sites, burial sites and middens located throughout the islands help tell the story of the People’s life since Creation here. “We were here yesterday, we’re here today, we’re going to be here tomorrow,” Lummi culture-bearer Lutie Hillaire said her grandmother from San Juan Island told her.

While the San Juan Islands were ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Point Elliott of 1855, the Lummi Nation retained certain rights on the islands, such as protection of cultural sites and access to certain resources. But depending on the ownership, accessing upland ancestral sites is restricted.

In the following years, settlers were drawn to the islands by land that was available simply by claiming it and working it, and by the abundant resources. Native fishermen, whose reefnetting method is still considered the best for selective fishing, saw the salmon population quickly depleted by the large commercial fish-trapping operations in the islands.

According to the 2003 report “Salmon Bank” An Ethnohistoric Compilation” by National Park Service anthropologist Jacilee Wray, traps caught an average of 178,245 sockeye during the 1917 season. By 1934, the year fish traps were outlawed, that number was down to 35,291. To preserve the resource for recreational fishing and commercial purse seiners and gillnetters, the state attempted to regulate Indian fishing. It wouldn’t be until 1974, 40 years later, that U.S. v. Washington affirmed that Indian fishing was a treaty reserved right and, to preserve the resource, established the treaty tribes as co-managers of the state’s fish population.

‘An awakening’

In the 1980s, the Lummi Nation acquired Madrona Point, a 30-acre ancestral site in the Orcas Island village of Eastsound. The site is protected and is currently restricted to public access.

The Lummi Nation has access to a cemetery located on privately owned land on San Juan Island that was once part of WH’LEHL-kluh. She-Kla-Malt, a Lummi leader of WH’LEHL-kluh, filed and received a patent for – acres in 1884, and the land remained in Indian ownership until She-Kla-Malt’s granddaughter passed away without heirs in 1983.

In 2004, “Interaction,” house posts carved by Musqueam artist Susan Point, was installed in a park near the ferry landing in Friday Harbor. Point said the installation reinstates the footprint of the island’s First Peoples.

Later that year, canoes from several Coast Salish nations visited Roche Harbor – which their grandparents’ grandparents knew as WH’LEHL-kluh – as part of the annual Canoe Journey.

In 2009, representatives of the Lummi Nation served as grand marshals of Friday Harbor’s Fourth of July Parade, during the town’s centennial year.


Then, in 2014, the first Coast Salish Mini-University camp. And in 2015, the pole raising at Pe'pi'ow'elh.

Olsen said ‘an awakening’ is taking place.

“We were disconnected from our culture there after the treaty was signed and we moved to reservations,” Olsen said. “Having that connection is an interesting experience spiritually. We need to heal from the trauma [from the disconnect], and we have a responsibility to figure out how to make it easier for our young people to come out here.”

Olsen hopes to raise money to buy land for a longhouse that would double as a cultural center, where visitors could learn about Lummi culture.

A longhouse on the island – “That’s our dream. That’s our passion,” he said.

About the 80-acre donation

The 80 acres that Lummi will have access to has two shorelines extending over 3,100 feet in total, according to the Land Bank. The shorelines host cormorant rookeries, and several pocket beaches are nestled amid rocky outcrops. The uplands feature a Garry oak savannah to the west and, on the east, dense forests that yield to Open Bay.

The Land Bank will manage the property. The Land Bank is funded by a tax on real estate sales; proceeds are used to acquire land for preservation as open space.