House posts tell story of Samish maiden

ANACORTES, Wash. - Samish tradition tells of a maiden who sacrificed her human form when she married a merman and became a mermaid. Thereafter, she could feed her people from the bounty of the sea.

This story, one of the most important to the Samish people, is depicted in two 20-foot house posts adorning the Samish Nation's remodeled offices in Anacortes, Wash.

The posts were carved by Tracy Powell, an Anacortes artist who also carved the 30-foot Maiden of Deception Pass at Rosario Beach on Fidalgo Island. The island is historically Samish land.

Tom Wooten, vice chairman of the Samish Nation, tells the story of the posts.

One post depicts the land the Samish people knew: An eagle, bear, and other animals, and the Maiden in human form, her hands raised in welcome.

The second post signifies the bounty of the sea: The Maiden in mermaid form and an orca harvesting salmon. There is one salmon for each season and direction. The eagle diving to capture salmon represents the connection between land and sea.

In addition, the sign in front of the offices depicts Samish men canoeing to a village, symbolizing the journey the Samish have been on for 30 years. A man on the bow of the canoe is raising his hands in welcome.

"We're finding ourselves again," said Wooten, who works at the ARCO Refinery at nearby March Point, where there were once two Samish villages.

The Samish people's journey has been bittersweet, Wooten said. They regained federal recognition as a tribe in 1996, but their fishing rights were not restored. Their efforts to acquire historically Samish land have been stymied by the cost and scarcity of land on the heavily populated island.

The Samish Nation has acquired 80 acres above Campbell Lake and have plans to build homes there. The nation has 900 enrolled members, Wooten said.

While the nation was working to re-obtain recognition, "we still maintained our own government," Wooten said. "We have a strong sense of who we are. It's a success story out of something that was bad."

Educating the public

The artwork faces Commercial Avenue, Fidalgo Island's main thoroughfare. Anacortes is the port of entry for ferry travelers to and from Washington's San Juan Islands and Canada's Vancouver Island.

The artwork is visible to possibly a million people a year; that's how many visited Moran State Park in the San Juan Islands. The nation hopes to make people aware of the Samish presence in the region and invites visitors to stop and admire the eye-catching building.

"That's the impact we wanted," said Rick Landers, general manager of the Samish Nation. "One of the council's high priorities is education."

Landers said the office building was remodeled to look like a traditional Samish longhouse.

"What we had was an old real estate office, with a third of the space we needed," he said. "The remodeling doubled our space to 4,000 square feet."

Landers said the remodeling was put out for bid and a Samish contractor won. The work cost about $70 per square foot.

The house posts cost the nation $20,000 - $5,000 for the cedar log and $15,000 for the artist.

The next project: On June 28, the Samish people will have a traditional naming ceremony for a Coast Salish canoe they acquired.