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Holy road: Former Samish leader Ken Hansen passes 'Was instrumental in effort to win re-recognition'

ANACORTES, Wash. – Only a month earlier, on June 24, former Samish Indian Nation Chairman Ken Hansen talked at a gathering about what it meant to be Samish.

On the 10th anniversary of the re-recognition for which he had worked so hard, Hansen encouraged all Samish to actively participate in Samish life. He encouraged them to gather together and “feed well, set a good table and pray that the ancestors will give us guidance.”

On July 25, Samish hosted about 20 canoe families from the Pacific Northwest as part of the annual Intertribal Canoe Journey. “It was the biggest event we ever hosted,” said Sarah Johnson, archaeology and research technician for the Samish. “It went beautifully. We set a good table and took care of our guests in a way Ken would be proud.”

The next morning, as canoes readied to depart Samish for the next part of the journey under clear summer skies, Hansen passed away. The shimmering beauty of the water reflected the beauty of a man who one tribal leader called “outstanding.”

Hansen, 54, had been in failing health for a long time and was in the intensive care unit of a local hospital when the next part of his journey came. Survivors in his immediate family include his wife, Deborah; mother, Mary Hansen, former Samish tribal secretary; brother, Roger; and stepdaughters Krista and Keeshema.

Hansen, whose Samish name was Tsa-Wac-Ton, and his mother had worked together to help regain Samish’s recognition; she has been referred to at gatherings as “Samish’s grandmother.”

As news of Hansen’s passing spread, tributes quickly followed.

“Your loss is our loss. We are relatives,” said a member of a Nisqually canoe family, in asking permission to depart Samish. “We offer prayers for our nation. We are all family.”

“Our hearts are heavy,” said the skipper of the Squamish canoe family. “But he’s with his relatives and they’re celebrating over there.”

Samish artist and tribal leader William Bailey told pullers to “watch for an eagle flying above. It will be Ken joining the journey.”

Musgamagw Tsawataineuk Chief Frank Nelson of Kingcome Inlet, British Columbia, offered a prayer song on the beach. Hansen “was instrumental in professing the Samish Nation, in lifting up the hearts of the people of this area and winning recognition for Samish as a sovereign nation,” Nelson said.

Nelson called for compassion for Hansen’s family and the Samish, and told of one canoe-puller who had to leave the journey when he learned his mother was dying. “He didn’t make it home in time to say goodbye to his mother. But he was lifted up by the compassion of others. When someone needs lifting up, we do it as a family.”

Samish’s two canoes stayed on the beach in honor of the late chairman. They were expected to rejoin the journey after the services for Hansen. Samish’s offices were closed from July 27 – 31. The Samish Web site called Hansen “a tireless advocate for over 35 years. He was our friend, our leader, and our mentor – he will be greatly missed.”

A spiritual gathering and dinner for family and friends was held at Samish’s Fidalgo Bay Resort July 30; the following morning, a funeral was held at the resort. In accordance with his wishes, Hansen’s ashes were scattered at an undisclosed location.

At Swinomish, the next stop on the canoe journey, 14 canoes pulled up to the beach and, before the protocol began, Chester Cayou, respected Swinomish leader, called for a moment of silence for Hansen. A Lummi canoe family dedicated its journey to Hansen.

“It’s a bittersweet time for the nation,” Samish Chairman Tom Wooten said. “He’s gone on to be with his ancestors. But he’s not here to see us prevail” in Samish’s effort to regain full treaty rights.

Wooten added, “He was the catalyst, the glue that kept the tribe together. I’m going to miss him.”

Hansen served on the tribal council off and on since he was 18; he was chairman for 17 years and was re-elected chairman in May 2004. He was also Samish’s policy analyst. He resigned as chairman in October 2005 because of his declining health. But he continued to be involved in Samish affairs until the end, consulting with tribal leaders regarding Samish’s lawsuit to regain full treaty rights.

“I had talked to him Sunday,” three days before he passed away, Wooten said. “He was definitely a factor. It was such a big part of his life. It was like an addiction. He couldn’t quit cold turkey.”

In a July 2004 interview, Hansen said family involvement in Samish government and “fits of madness” kept him involved. “This was my calling. It’s always a part of me,” he said. Mary Hansen was tribal secretary in the 1950s and ’60s. His grandfather, Don McDowell, was chairman in the 1920s and ’30s.

Hansen was part of the team that regained federal recognition for the Samish in 1996. Some 113 Samish people were present at the signing of the Point Elliott Treaty in 1855. Samish was on the list of federally recognized tribes that was published by the BIA in 1966. But Samish lost its federal recognition when, through a clerical error, it was left off the list when the BIA republished it in 1969.

In 1974, while Samish was suing for re-recognition, U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt issued his decision reasserting the rights of treaty tribes to half of the fishing harvests in perpetuity, but Samish was not included. So, when federal recognition was regained, full treaty rights were not. Samish’s lawsuit to regain full treaty rights will be heard in federal court in late August or early September.

As chairman, Hansen also focused on economic development and rebuilding the Samish community.

While Samish does not have a reservation, under Hansen’s leadership it acquired 80 acres on Campbell Lake, which has been placed in trust; Samish proposes to build homes there. Samish acquired 62-acre Fidalgo Bay Resort on Weaverling Spit and 11 acres at Ship Harbor. Samish also owns offices on the main thoroughfare in the city of Anacortes.

Samish services include a preschool, elders’ services, health care and wellness, social services, cultural restoration and celebration, education assistance, a library and mentoring program.

Anacortes Mayor Dean Maxwell, chosen by Hansen to be an honorary pallbearer, said Hansen wanted the best for Anacortes, the city that grew up on historically Samish land, and that they worked together on many issues that benefited the community at large.

“He was a real sincere man. He had a great deal of integrity and I have all the respect in the world for him,” Maxwell said.

Back at Swinomish, as the sun set and hundreds of canoe pullers ate dinner at smokehouse, Swinomish Sen. Chester Cayou reflected on Hansen’s leadership and life. He held up his hands and said, “Build him up. He was outstanding.”

<i>Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at rmwalker@rockisland.com.