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Samish celebrate the 10th anniversary of re-recognition ‘But we have a long way to go’

ANACORTES, Wash. – The theme of the Samish Indian Nation’s 10th anniversary of its

re-recognition June 24 was “The Journey Continues,” acknowledging Samish’s efforts to regain full treaty rights.

But on that day, there was a lot of celebration of how far the Samish have come since regaining federal recognition in 1996.

The celebration was led by William Bailey, a Samish leader and artist, who called it a day of “warmth, love and tenderness.”

“This is a day for us to open the door to welcome our friends … to share a meal and share one another,” he said.

The day included traditional songs, dancing and a potlatch, all held in the community center at the Samish-owned Fidalgo Bay Resort.

Selected as witnesses were George Jackson, Quileute, whom Bailey called “a good friend of the Samish”; Judy Joseph, area superintendent of the BIA office in Everett; Mary McQuillen, a Makah elder active in civic and tribal affairs; and Don Munks, a Skagit County commissioner.

“It’s a historic day for us,” Chairman Tom Wooten said. “A lot of people have been involved in getting the tribe where it is today, but we have a long way to go.”

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.

Samish regained federal recognition in April 1996, but is still suing to regain full-treaty rights such as fishing and hunting. That suit is expected to be heard in federal court in late August or early September.

Some neighboring tribal governments aren’t keen on sharing fishing rights, partly because the salmon population is struggling. Ironically, although Samish doesn’t have fishing rights, it is restoring salmon streams in the nearby San Juan Islands, historic territory of the Samish and other Coast Salish nations.

“We don’t want to harvest fish, we want to sustain fish,” Wooten said. “There is more to fishing than catching fish.”

Former Samish Chairman Margaret Greene, who now lives on the Lummi Reservation, was presented with gifts for her work during the effort to regain recognition. But she lamented that the effort to regain full-treaty rights has pitted Samish against neighboring tribal nations. She longed for the traditional ways of resolving disputes.

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“They have allowed themselves to go to court with my relations, before going to the old people to ask who you are,” Greene said. She added, “I pray this gambling with our property rights will cease. Don’t use precious money paying lawyers when you have the answers yourself.”

The most moving defense of the Samish people came from a voice from the past. Bruce Miller, Skokomish, who led the revival of a number of traditional Skokomish spiritual and ceremonial practices, including winter longhouse ceremonies and the first elk ceremony, recorded a statement on behalf of the Samish before he died in February 2005. His voice was heard in a slideshow about Samish culture.

Miller, who had ties to Samish, called the concept of re-recognition “ridiculous.” “Who had the right to say we don’t exist as a nation? The Samish Nation never ceased to exist,” he said. “We are descended from people that didn’t have a written language, yet our literature was as rich as any other nation that ever lived. When we lived in a society without writing, we had to remember.”

Miller called on the Samish diaspora to “come back to one place.” Many Samish refused to move to reservations after the treaty signing; their descendants are scattered throughout the region.

Former Samish Chairman Ken Hansen echoed Miller’s call. He encouraged all Samish to actively participate in Samish life and said the general council meeting is “our high holy of days.” Of those descended from Samish and non-Samish ancestors, he said, “You’re not part Samish. You’re Samish.”

Hansen encouraged Samish people to gather together and “feed well, set a good table and pray that the ancestors will give us guidance.”

The re-recognition ceremony featured a performance of “Native Othello” by Red Eagle Soaring Native American Theater Group. The Seattle-based group’s mission is to empower American Indian and Alaska Native youth through traditional and contemporary performing arts. The story was an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s tragedy and incorporated many peer issues faced by teens today.

Near the end of the ceremony, Munks – whose great-grandfather was one of the first white settlers in the county – called it “an honor to be selected as a witness.” He said Samish history is “a history that was never interrupted” and added, “I hope you do get all the recognition you deserve to get.”

Jordan encouraged Samish in its effort to regain full-treaty rights. She said she was working at BIA when the decision was made to re-recognize Samish and “we could not believe the decision came down the way it did,” she said.

While Samish does not have a reservation of its own, it owns land on Campbell Lake, which has been placed in trust; Samish proposes to build homes there. Samish also owns Fidalgo Bay Resort on Weaverling Spit, part of its historic territory, and offices on Commercial Avenue, 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.

Last year, Samish repatriated a house post that belonged to the last Samish longhouse on Guemes Island. A few days before the re-recognition celebration, a Samish canoe journeyed to Guemes Island for the first time in 100 years at the invitation of the new Madrona Art Center there. The artists asked Samish to help dedicate the center, a nod to Samish’s ancestral ties to the island.

Bailey said bald eagles flew overhead as the canoe arrived.

Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at