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‘Samish grandmother’ Mary McDowell Hansen passes away

ANACORTES, Wash. – Mary McDowell Hansen was prepared early for the battles that lay ahead for her Samish people.

When she was about 12, she began assisting her father, Samish Chairman Don McDowell, by typing council minutes and other official documents. After graduation from Burlington High School, junior college studies, marriage and starting a family, she served as council secretary.

Samish doesn’t have a reservation; today’s Samish are the descendants of those who refused in the late 1800s and early 1900s to move to the Lummi, Swinomish or Tulalip reservations, and Hansen devoted her working life to keeping Samish’s Diaspora together.

She and other Samish leaders faced back-to-back challenges in 1969 and 1974. First, a BIA clerical error omitted Samish from a list of federally recognized tribes. Second, a federal judge reaffirmed fishing rights for signatories of the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott, but only for those with reservations.

Working with her son, Samish Chairman Ken Hansen, she saw victory: In 1996, federal recognition was restored. In the years that followed, Samish acquired land in its ancestral territory, strengthened its cultural identity, became involved in environmental stewardship, and began flexing some economic development muscle.

At the 10th anniversary of Samish’s re-recognition, Hansen – who carried her great-grandmother’s name, Cumshelitsa – was referred to as “Samish’s grandmother.”

“The piece I’m going to miss is that knowledge base to draw from,” Samish Chairman Tom Wooten said. “We lost a great historical resource in Mary. Everyone was very fond of her and she’ll be missed dearly.”

Hansen passed away Dec. 17 in an Anacortes care facility. She was 86. A church service was scheduled Jan. 10, in St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle. Her ashes will be interred next to her husband Paul’s in the cathedral’s Chapel of the Resurrection.

She is survived by her son, Roger, three granddaughters, four great-grandchildren, one great-great-grandson, and numerous other relatives. Ken Hansen passed away in 2006.

“She had a family built around her,” Roger said of his mother. “So many people considered her their mom, grandma or auntie that weren’t blood related. She created that environment. She became a mother figure for an awful lot of people.”

Megan Jones, a retired archivist for the Samish Indian Nation, said Hansen would be remembered “for her strength, persistence and dedication.”

Chris DeKay, a cousin of Hansen and a former Samish council member, said everything she knows about Samish culture she learned from the Hansens and Margaret Greene, another former Samish leader.

“I listened and listened and listened,” DeKay said. “Whatever I’ve got stuck away in there about traditions and culture, I got from Mary and Ken. (Her passing) is a big loss for everybody and for Samish in general.”

Today, Samish has a strong presence in its ancestral land. It owns Fidalgo Bay Resort on Weaverling Spit, a culturally sensitive site; 78 acres on Fidalgo Island’s Campbell Lake; 43 acres on Thomas Creek, a tributary of the Samish River; 19 acres of commercial land on Highway 20; 3.5 acres of oyster beds on Lopez Island; and a block on Commercial Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Anacortes.

Fidalgo Bay Resort is a stop on the Intertribal Canoe Journey, an annual gathering that keeps alive the tradition of canoe travel upon the ancestral waters. In fall, Samish raised a welcome pole at the resort; William Bailey, the Samish artist who carved the pole, said it is believed to be the first pole on Weaverling Spit in about 200 years.

Other Samish public art include house posts at its offices facing Commercial Avenue and a 24-foot carved likeness of Ko-kwal-al-woot, a Samish woman who married a sea being to guarantee salmon runs for her people. The statue is located in Deception Pass State Park. Samish also plans to open a Native art gallery in downtown Anacortes in the first quarter of 2009.

In addition, Samish offers a variety of services to its members, including cultural programs, education assistance, elders’ services, health care and wellness, housing assistance, a library, preschool, social services and vocational rehabilitation.

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

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