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Swinomish Indian Tribal Community

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The reservation and community of the Swinomish Indian Tribe is located on a small peninsula of Fidalgo Island in upper Puget Sound, across the Swinomish Channel from the town of La Conner in Skagit County, northwestern Washington.

A confederation of several tribes and bands of Coastal Salish, united as the Swinomish Tribe, call the Swinomish Reservation home. They include the original Swinomish as well as Samish, Kikyalus, and Lower Skagit, brought together by the federal government. Most residents live in a small community next to the Swinomish Channel, which forms the reservation's eastern boundary .

The reservation comprises about 8,155 acres, which is tribally owned land in trust* or owned by non-Indians.

A brief history

The aboriginal Swinomish tongue was Lushutseed, a variant of the wider Salish language. The Swinomish were closely related to the Skagit tribe and inhabited the territory at the mouth of the Skagit River, together with the adjacent portion of present-day Whidbey Island. Like numerous Northwestern tribes, the Swinomish were known for salmon fishing, and canoes and longhouses crafted of cedar. The Swinomish were principally a fishing people, thanks to the abundance of salmon. It used to be claimed that the fish were so numerous that one could walk across a river on their backs. The people expertly caught, preserved, and stored them for winter consumption. They also spent their summers traveling the Puget Sound area, gathering berries and meat for winter.

There were years when there were no salmon for some. An affected tribe would approach relatives in another tribe that was enjoying a good season and ask to participate in their fishery. If they petitioned in the proper way, permission was granted. The following year, if the petitioning tribe was experiencing a good season, they would reciprocate.

The longhouse served as a conduit for the passage of Swinomish spirituality and culture to successive generations. When the fishing season was past, the tribe gravitated to the longhouse for ceremonies. Fire and smoke conveyed significance to the Swinomish community, and ceremony entailed several fire pits. Longhouse ceremonies could last half a day. As carvers rendered cedar logs into story poles, they occasionally received visions that entered the poles and were conveyed to participants through story, spirit dancing, and other longhouse rituals.

The Puget Sound area was discovered by European explorers as early as 1500, but three centuries would pass before others arrived in significant numbers. Massive changes would then affect native peoples.

In the 19th century, Northwestern tribes were virtually overwhelmed by the growing dominance of land-hungry white settlers and others entering the region. To receive land set aside for their exclusive use by the federal government, the Swinomish and other tribes signed the historic Point Elliot Treaty of 1855, which created the Swinomish Reservation. A presidential executive order of September 9, 1873, clarified the northern border and added nearly 60 acres, which established the dimensions of the then 7,449-acre tract.

In the 1850s, the Swinomish and others came under the influence of the Roman Catholic faith. They were missionized by Father Casimir Chirouse and the Oblate fathers.

Following establishment and settlement of the reservation, the supervising Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) prohibited spirit dancing and other practices. Ancient longhouses were abandoned, but ceremonies were quietly carried on elsewhere. During epidemics, some longhouses were burned as a public health measure, and the last one burned down or just collapsed in the 1940s.

According to an 1862 census, Skagit County was first settled mainly by loggers, many of them from Maine. The Anglo-American population increased rapidly in the 1880s and '90s with immigrants from the Plain states who settled on the flood plains.

Seeking employment, many Swinomish people moved around various areas of the Puget Sound region. By 1884, 75 percent of the reservation natives were employed in such American economic practices as logging, farming, and milling.

By the late 1880s, the tribe began to lose its reservation land because of a federal allotment policy. The policy, put in place by Congress through the Dawes Act of 1887, called for American Indians to be assimilated into the dominant society, and it promoted an agrarian way of life. Tribal lands were allotted to individual members who received either 80 or 160 acres of reservation land.

Unallotted acreage was then designated surplus and made available to non-Indian buyers. Tribal members who had been allotted lands were frequently forced off by dishonest BIA agents, or foreclosure for failing to pay property taxes.

The Swinomish tribe voted to accept the the provisions of the new Indian Reorganization Act on November 16, 1935. A federal charter, tribal constitution and by-laws were favorably voted upon by the tribe the same year, and approved by the Secretary of the Interior in 1936. The Swinomish Indian Senate came into being as the constitutional governing body.

In the 1960s the tribe petitioned the Indian Claims Commission for a fundamental alteration to its reservation. They wanted it returned to the (pre-allotment) state in which it was promised to them in the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855. On June 21, 1971, the commission ruled that the petition be dismissed.

A traditional longhouse replica for ceremonial revival was dedicated in 1996 on the reservation.

The tribe became an Honoring Nations 2000 honoree, thanks to the tribal Office of Planning and Community Development's Cooperative Land Use Program.

"The Cooperative Land Use Program, which is based on memoranda of agreement and understanding between the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and Skagit County, provides a framework for conducting permitting activities within the boundaries of the 'checkerboarded' reservation and establishes a forum for resolving any conflicts that might arise. Since 1996, both governments have followed a common Comprehensive Land Use Plan and used similar procedures to administer it, exemplifying a mutually beneficial government-to-government relationship."

In 2002, A $1.2 million research grant to the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community was awarded by then Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christie Whitman -- the largest amount EPA had granted to a tribe up to that time. The money facilitated tribal researchers' investigation into the possibility that the Swinomish ingest contaminants when they consume shellfish gathered from customary places, and if such exposure is involved with a high frequency of health issues on their reservation.

The Swinomish had begun to buy back their lost lands in 1999. In addition, the tribe began in 2002 to request that the BIA place the lands into federal trust. Doing so would give the tribe sovereignty over the lands and eliminates the property from local tax rolls. As of 2004, the tribe had recouped about 1,100 acres of reservation land, but Skagit County officials opposed their removal from local taxation.

The Swinomish today

The Swinomish Tribal Community is a federally recognized Indian Tribe and a sovereign nation. The enrolled membership is about 778 and the Indian population living on or near the reservation is approximately 1,000. The executive governing body is the 11-member Swinomish Indian Senate, whose members are elected to five-year terms.

The tribe's Community Services Building houses the alcohol and drug abuse program, GED and adult education, Northwest Indian College, library, tribal court, and the Swinomish Police Department.

The Tribe is the principal employer on the reservation, with 175 FTE total tribal employees providing the following services:

  • Fish rearing and hatchery facility.
  • Swinomish Police Department is the first responder to crimes and emergencies on the reservation. In addition, the department cooperates with the neighboring town of La Conner and assists the Skagit County Sheriff's Department with incidents adjacent to the reservation, as well as search and rescue operations.
  • Swinomish Northern Lights Casino/bingo operation, and concessions.
  • Fish processing plant.
  • Tribal water system.
  • Social services.
  • Housing/utility authority. Limited housing is available on the reservation. Other housing is available in the town of LaConner.
  • Northwest Indian College/work training program.
  • Swinomish Tribal Health Center features include five exam rooms, one procedure room and support staff offices. The clinic basement contains a diabetes program and a fitness center. Staffing by two nurse practitioners for five days per week, and physician services for three and a half days, are provided. Services include prenatal case management, a weekly WIC nutrition clinic, dental care, contract health services, vocational rehabilitation, mental health, and alcohol and drug abuse treatment.
  • The Swinomish Office of Planning and Community Development's mission is to "...promote sustainable community development and ecological functions, and to expand the Tribe's capacity to exercise its sovereign rights, through planning, analysis, education, and implementation."
  • The annual Native American Day Celebration, sponsored by the Swinomish Tribal Community and the Town of La Conner, is held in September. The event is free and includes such activities as canoe racing, stick games, native arts & crafts sales, exhibits and informational activities.


    *Land owned by the federal government, but maintained by a tribe.

    Location: PO Box 817, La Conner Washington 98257 Telephone 360-466-3163

    Other History nearby:
    (Bellingham) American Museum of Radio and Electricity
    (Bellingham) American Radio Museum
    (Anacortes) Anacortes History Museum
    (Bellingham) Antique Radio Museum
    (Snohomish) Blackman House Museum
    (Oak Harbor) CCC Interpretive Center


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