This profile is one of a series on the contributions, cultural knowledge and strength of Native peoples in celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day, Monday, Oct. 11, and throughout the month of November, which is Native American Heritage Month.
On the Stommish grounds of Lummi Nation, Chairman Lawrence Solomon crosses the gravel beach to open the gate to the tribe’s canoe shed. As far as the eye can see is Lummi fishing territory. He points to one of the oldest canoes in the shed, it’s painted a brilliant yellow and red. On the farthest wall is the Lady Rose — the canoe his mother used to paddle.
“This is only one part of our culture, but it’s something I grew up doing and love,” said Solomon, who has been paddling since the age of 6 and competed in canoe races around the globe.
One of his favorite events of the year is the Stommish Water Festival, which brings in dozens of canoe families from around the region. His great-grandmother Edith Jones and her husband Vic held the first Stommish — meaning “warrior” — in 1946 in honor of their two sons, Bill and Stanley Solomon, and other Lummi veterans who returned home from World War II.
Generations of Lummi canoes, many of them dug out of whole cedar trees, sit in the massive shed on land once owned by his great-grandparents and those before them. Well before his family donated the land to the tribe, a pond by the hill was home to hundreds of frogs.“I’m told the sound was deafening,” Solomon said.
He shares the story his great-grandfather used to tell of a big sea monster who was swimming nearby. It stopped to eat and rest on the hill. When it was done, it stretched and jumped high in the sky, back in the water and made a big splash.
“It looked like fleas were coming off of him. But it was tadpoles. And that’s how the pond and the frogs came to be,” Solomon said. “There’s a lot of history in this place here. ‘Wexliem,’ like our Wexliem Community Center nearby, means ‘home of the frogs’ in our Lummi language and our family clan is named for the frogs too.”Solomon began learning the Lhaq’temish language while enrolled in Headstart at about 4-years-old. He’s been mentored by many language keepers in the tribe, including the late Bill Tsi’li’xw James, hereditary chief of the Lummi people who died in June 2020.
“Our language like so many others — and many did — could have gone totally extinct if it weren’t for those who took the time to teach us. I raise my hands up to them,” Solomon said.
Solomon enjoys many traditional and cultural activities in his free time. As a canoe paddler and fisherman, Solomon said he always felt a connection to the water and felt called to follow in the footsteps of those whose service had been honored at the Stommish grounds. These callings came together in 2000, when at the age of 18 Solomon enlisted in the Navy.
After being medically discharged from the Navy in 2013, Solomon got his associate’s degree from Northwest Indian College and later decided to run for council. He is currently serving his second three-year term on the 11-person council.
Also in 2013, Solomon and his wife Denise were married and formed the Blackhawk Singers, a group of up to 100 Lummi youth and tribal members who perform traditional and new songs and dances. Their daughter Cassandra, 13, performs with them. They also have two sons — Evan, 29, and Tristan, 25.
“I composed about three songs, but it’s my wife who has the ear,” Solomon said. “We always have a good time. We started the group to bring our community together to celebrate and heal with music.”
Now in his second year as chairman, Solomon has made a name for himself as a fierce protector of the Lummi people, culture, lands, treaty rights and the environment. In numerous op-eds, Solomon has called for action in saving the Lummi relatives — the orca and salmon.
“I learned to fish when I was about 14. I’d fish sockeye at Point Roberts with my uncle or my dad who would always say, ‘It’s called ‘fishing,’ it’s not called ‘catching.’ But these days, catching fish is even more of a blessing,” he said.
“And that’s the thing about our community. That’s my brother there,” he said pointing to a fisherman on the beach. “We’re like family. We’re all family. We work together to take care of our bodies and our spirit. And salmon is such a big part of that.”
Every day, Solomon said he worries for the future of the salmon, orca, environment and his tribe.
“Being chairman is a very humbling experience, but there’s days I don’t sleep sometimes. I’m up thinking about everything, and COVID was especially one of them — still is,” he said.
Early on in the pandemic, Lummi Nation made tough decisions in closing its Silver Reef Casino (now open), locking down and figuring out how best to serve its people. Solomon said with the guidance of their doctors, they made these decisions quickly and led the region in implementing protective COVID measures. The tribe also was a leader in distributing vaccines not just to tribal members, but others throughout the county.
“To be able to lead Lummi Nation through something like COVID, every day I’m determined to come to work. I give a lot of credit to our council and our doctors who make decisions, facilitate and make sure we move forward together with our tribal community and our neighbors. That’s who we are as Lummi people,” Solomon said.
Natasha Brennan covers Indigenous Affairs for Northwest McClatchy Newspapers. She’s a member of the Report for America corps.