BIA qualifies Samish Nation to have lands put into trust

On the corner of Qel7achs and Shlhokw: With a positive Carcieri decision in hand, the Samish Nation plans to pursue fee-to-trust applications for its non-contiguous lands, which include Fidalgo Bay Resort. Photo: Richard Walker

Richard Walker

BIA: Samish Nation was federally recognized prior to 1934. Samish Nation Chairman: ‘We deserve a seat at the table.’

ANACORTES, Washington -- The Samish Indian Nation, which does not have a reservation, qualifies to have its lands put into trust, thanks to the BIA Northwest regional director’s determination that it was federally recognized in 1934 when the Indian Reorganization Act was adopted.

When the U.S. agrees to hold land title in trust for an indigenous nation, it is acknowledging that the land is owned by the government of that Nation for the benefit of that government’s constituents. Land put into trust is subject to the Native Nation’s laws, regulations, and governance.

The BIA’s determination is significant for the Samish Nation. After the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott was signed, some Samish people went to the Lummi and Swinomish reservations. Today, the Samish Nation is comprised of those whose ancestors who refused to relocate and instead stayed on their ancestral lands.

Though Chow-its-hoot, a treaty-era Lummi leader, signed the treaty for Samish, it was left off a BIA list of federally acknowledged Native Nations in 1969. Samish was re-acknowledged by the U.S. in 1996 and began acquiring lands within its historical territory. One acquisition, the site of a proposed cultural center, was put into trust in 2006. But other fee-to-trust applications were stalled after 2009 because of Carcieri v. Salazar, the U.S. Supreme Court case that determined the federal government could not put land into trust for Native Nations that were federally recognized after the Indian Reorganization Act was adopted in 1934.

​A Samish Nation canoe passes a Washington state ferry on the ancestral marine highway of the San Juan Islands during the 2008 Canoe Journey, an annual gathering of canoe cultures from throughout the Pacific Northwest. Photo: Molly Neely-Walker

In his decision for the Samish Nation’s latest fee-to-trust application — for an access road to the cultural center site — BIA Northwest regional director Brian Mercier, Grande Ronde, wrote on Nov. 8 that despite the U.S.’s broken relationship with the Samish Nation from 1969 to 1996, “the record demonstrates that the Nation’s ancestors were first recognized and brought under federal jurisdiction when the United States negotiated and entered the Treaty of Point Elliott with the Samish.”

Mercier added, “From 1855 through 1934, there is no evidence demonstrating that the United States ever terminated the Samish Nation’s recognized status. In the years following the Treaty, the federal government treated the Samish Nation as a federally recognized tribe, during which time federal officials continued a course of dealings with the Nation and its members on and off the reservations established by the Treaty.”

Samish Nation Chairman Tom Wooten told Indian Country Today that Mercier’s 32-page letter documenting the Samish Nation’s status — that it was federally acknowledged at the time the Indian Reorganization Act took effect — “affirms what we have been saying forever: that we are the historical Samish Tribe and we deserve a seat at the table.”

Samish Nation Chairman Tom Wooten, Photo: Samish Tribal Government webpage

The importance of putting land in trust

When a land title is put into trust on behalf of an indigenous nation, the land then falls under the sole authority of that Nation’s government. Land not held in trust is subject to the jurisdiction and authority — including law enforcement, land-use planning, and taxation — of state and local governments.

Currently, only 84 acres of Samish Nation-owned land is held in trust, meaning all of its other lands are subject to the jurisdiction and authority of the neighboring city and county.

Cities, states and the federal government do not collect taxes on the lands they own title to but have the authority to levy taxes and charge fees to support the services they provide. The Samish Nation would have that same authority over its lands once put into trust.

Wooten told ICT that the Samish Nation compensates the City of Anacortes and Skagit County for providing services on Samish Nation lands in lieu of paying property taxes. Wooten said the Nation “will continue to do so as lands are put into trust” to cover the costs of services, such as public safety and fire protection, that Samish will continue to receive from neighboring jurisdictions.

Opposition to trust applications

Two Samish Nation neighbors, the Upper Skagit Tribe and the Swinomish Tribe, have opposed Samish’s efforts to have all of its lands put into trust, citing territorial and jurisdictional issues.

The Samish Nation owns lands that are spread over an area that includes a portion of the Salish Sea — from Fidalgo Island to San Juan Island — to which other Native Nations share ancestral ties.

Upper Skagit Tribe Chairwoman Jennifer Washington told the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs on July 23, 2013, that 45 acres owned by Samish Nation are located “squarely and totally in the homeland of the Upper Skagit.” The Nation operates a community garden there and also grows native plants used in habitat restoration.

The area was historically occupied by the Nuwhaha, also known as Upper Samish, whose descendants are now at either Upper Skagit or Samish. Thus, Wooten told ICT, “We have a connection to that land that is just as strong as our neighbors and it should definitely be put into trust for us.”

Washington also expressed concern at the subcommittee hearing that putting all of Samish Nation’s lands into trust would create a non-contiguous reservation that would include the aforementioned marine waters, creating for the Samish Nation “an on-reservation marine fishery all the way out to the San Juan Islands” that “would not only disrupt the U.S. v. Washington court-ordered marine fisheries of numerous Treaty Tribes, but would overrule the decisions of the federal courts.”

Because the Samish Nation was not considered “federally acknowledged” in 1974 when U.S. v Washington affirmed the right of treaty signatories to fish off-reservation within their historical fishing areas, off-reservation fishing rights were not extended. Samish was unsuccessful in getting subsequent courts to add it to the decision.

Wooten told ICT that Washington’s argument is “quite a reach.” “Reservations are composed of land that can be surveyed,” he said.

Swinomish seeks restoration of reservation boundaries

In addition, tensions have grown between the Samish Nation and its immediate neighbor, the Swinomish Tribe. The Swinomish Tribe claims its original reservation boundaries included a peninsula called March’s Point, claiming the point was removed from the reservation boundaries, without congressional approval, in the 1870s by President Ulysses S. Grant and made available for non-Native settlement. The Tribe is seeking to have its boundaries restored to include March’s Point.

If restored, Samish Nation properties on Highway 20 would fall within the revised Swinomish reservation boundaries, undoubtedly dooming the Samish Nation’s hopes to build a casino hotel on one of the properties. Samish Nation properties there are located midway between Swinomish Golf Links and the Swinomish Casino & Lodge.

Up next for the Samish Nation: Proceeding with fee-to-trust applications with BIA — first, land adjacent to its cultural center site, then its administration complex in downtown Anacortes, its preschool and elder center, and the property on Highway 20.

The Samish Nation owns some 12 sites in all, ranging from a half-acre to more than 100 acres in size. Samish Nation properties include two administrative complexes, a school, and a waterfront resort on Fidalgo Island; uplands and tidelands on Lopez Island, and sites for housing construction and economic development.

“It’s taken us a long time to get here,” Wooten said. “But we’re moving forward.”

Richard Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is a correspondent reporting from Anacortes, Washington. Contact him at

Comments (1)
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The Bureau of Indian Affairs determination to give the Samish Nation’s land in trust will go a long way for this aboriginal tribe and their land management. Their ability to rule the land under their own governance was not always possible, as there was no federal recognition of the tribe until 1996. Ensuring tribes have full access to govern their lands is very important in protecting their sacred sites and allowing for cultural survival. There will always be disputes and issues regarding their land, but they are now in the most power to preserve their ancestral lands and manage the species dependent on these areas to continue traditional practices and cultural practices