PORTLAND, Ore. - The Samish people know what it's like to be homeless. They
understand what it means to not be able to stand on the beach in the
gray-green mist of the Pacific Northwest and watch the tide come in. While
the more than 1,000 enrolled tribal members are the successors of the
2,000-strong Samish Nation, a signatory to the Treaty of Point Elliot in
1855, they've been without a homeland for 150 years.
In part the problem was that by the time the 1855 treaty was signed,
epidemic disease had ravaged the Samish and only 150 souls were left. The
once great Samish Nation had been reduced to a small, dispirited band of
people that were easy to overlook. At least that was the case until the
post-World War II generation came of age and started down the long road to
Even keeping their federal tribal status intact was a struggle. After
growing numbers of Samish were finally listed as a federally recognized
tribe in 1966, that status was lost in 1969 when the tribe was apparently
omitted from the roster due to a clerical error. The Samish Indian Nation
languished for 30 years in that questionable non-status. It wasn't until
1996 that the tribe was finally re-recognized. By that time the Samish had
established a tribal council, written a constitution, worked to get health
services and treaty fishing rights restored, began accumulating small
tracts of land and sought legal council.
Finally in early October, the Samish Indian Nation succeeded in restoring a
small portion of its former homeland - roughly 78 acres on Fidalgo Island,
one of the jewels in Puget Sound's beautiful San Juan Islands.
The Samish underscored its sovereignty by transferring title of the land to
the Bureau of Indian Affairs to hold in trust for the tribe. The
accomplishment came not only after a century of grief from the federal
government, but also three years of attacks by Skagit county officials.
Once again, confused government doings appeared to be at the heart of the
problem. While the Samish tribal council applied to build 26 housing units
on the property, the BIA returned a memorandum approving the construction
of 150 homes, something that the tribal chairman Ken Hansen said was never
on the agenda of the Samish.
Still, Skagit County filed an appeal, and three years of wrangling ensued.
The Samish finally brought an end to the impasse by taking the unusual step
of waving certain aspects of their sovereignty. Instead of retaining the
power of managing the land as they choose - as sovereign entities are
entitled - the tribal council signed off to comply with county
stipulations. Included in the agreement were provisions that the tribe will
build no more than 26 single-family homes on the site and that the Samish
abide by county building codes.
The majority of tribes in the United States refuse to compromise their
sovereignty in such ways because they do not want to subordinate their
power to county regulations. Generally, the only times the tribes are
willing to defer to county demands is when land use is earmarked for casino
development, according to the BIA Realty office in the Northwest.
According to Chairman Hansen, the Samish have no plans for gaming on the
property or elsewhere. Rather, he emphasized the idea that restoring the
tribal land base started long before the tribes got into the casino
business. Nonetheless, the tribal council thought approving the agreement
was worth it so the tribe could move forward with its plans.
"No one can mess with it now. We've had three years of county governments
messing with it," Hansen said "We're through with that now."
General Manager for the tribe, Rick Landers, agrees. "We're just glad the
process has finally been completed," Landers said. "It's been a long
The Samish can now move forward. Water and utilities are scheduled to go in
soon and the tribal council is hoping that by the end of the year they can
start making projections on how soon people can begin relocating. In
addition to housing, the tribe is looking at acquiring businesses in the
area so that members returning to the island can find work. With shelter
and a source of income in place the tribe can move forward with restoration
of its culture.
According to Hansen, reconnecting with Samish culture will be the tribe's
greatest challenge. Still, that the Samish Indian Nation has been able to
come this far is auspicious and testament to their grit, not to mention the
Samish's sense of humor. Indeed, Chairman Hansen takes considerable pride
in the fact that even after disenfranchisement of the most wide-sweeping
variety, the Samish "continued to be a well-deserved pain in certain
government agency's sides."
Perhaps the reason the Samish endured is because they drew strength from
the Maiden of Deception Pass, the carving of a woman with long tresses
hanging down and her arms raised high over her head, holding a salmon to
the sky. "The lessons left for us by our ancestors are about both the
natural and spiritual worlds and how those worlds cannot be separated," the
Samish Cultural Department wrote. "The teaching helps guide our tribal
members in their daily lives ... and takes us through the transitions of
life from birth to death and beyond."
Ken Hansen reiterated that sentiment, "We thank our supporters in the
community, and even a couple in the BIA," he said. "And we thank our