The Upper Skagit people are descendants of a tribe that
inhabited 10 villages on the Upper Skagit and
rivers in western Washington state. The 84-acre Upper Skagit Reservation lies in the
uplands of the Skagit River Valley, east of
Sedro-Woolley in Skagit
County. Another 15 acres of undeveloped commercial land
lie along Interstate 5 near Alger.
A brief history
Flowing more than 125 miles from glaciers in the Canadian
Cascade Mountains, through old-growth forests and farmlands to
Skagit Bay in the Puget
Sound, the Skagit River is western Washington's largest
stream. Outside of Canada
and Alaska, it is one
of the few rivers that sustains all of its original salmon species:
Chinook, Chum, Coho, Pink and Sockeye.
The Skagit River Valley was home to a number of Native
American tribes known as the Coastal Samish, which comprised
two linguistic groups: the Straits, including the Clallam,
and Semiahmoo tribes; and the Lushootseed, including the
Skagit, Snohomish, Snoqualmie, Swinomish and Upper Skagit. The river sustained the culture that
inhabited its valley and the tribes flourished, thanks to the
bounty of such natural resources as salmon, shellfish, sea
mammals, upland game, camus root and cedar trees.
Cedar longhouses lay along the riverbanks from present-day Mount
Vernon to Newhalem in northwest Washington, until the
dwellers were compelled to resettle onto reservations in the
mid-1800s. The Upper Skagit people lived along the Skagit
River from Diablo, all the way west to its mouth.
Archaeological digs have revealed evidence of human
habitation in the Upper Skagit River basin dating to 8,500 years
Extended families or bands lived in the longhouses. Cooking
fires were positioned in the middle with ceiling holes directly
above. Rafters served as drying racks for smoked salmon.
Skagit River salmon shaped human subsistence patterns. When
the salmon run began, fishermen took canoes to fish camps,
down to the mouth of the river.
The Skagit River's residents practiced basketweaving for untold
generations. Artisans rendered riverbank roots, bark, and bear
grass gathered in the forest, into an array of basket types. Some
baskets were created for smoked salmon, others for dried meat
Elders' stories were woven from the river and its surroundings.
The stories revealed to the next generation where the best
salmon fishing was and where to hunt game in the mountains,
how to find sacred ground in the mountains, conduct spiritual
rituals and where to bathe in the river for healing. Spiritual ceremonies also were held, with smoke and fire as a
Beginning in the 17th century, Spanish, English, and American
explorers came into contact with Puget Sound tribes. Many years
would pass before the first non-Indian settlers began to trickle
into the Skagit Valley in 1846. Like their Native American
counterparts, they were attracted to the valley’s plentiful natural
resources — especially the fertile soil.
Following conflicts between land-hungry white settlers and
Washington Indians in the 1850s, the territory's governor and
Indian Agent, Isaac Stevens, drafted several peace treaties. The
Point Elliott Treaty, signed on January 22, 1855 by about 80
tribal leaders, including headmen of the Upper Skagit tribe,
called for Puget Sound tribes to cede vast tracts of land. In
exchange, the tribes were paid a small amount of money and
were assured federal health, education and welfare services as
well as the prerogative to hunt and fish at their traditional
places. In addition, some land was reserved for their use. The
government said the Upper Skagit were not one distinct group;
they would not be assigned a reservation.
The Point Elliott Treaty signatories and their people were
expected to move onto the new Lummi, Swinomish or Tulalip
reservations within a year of Congressional ratification, but
some tribes resisted, often fiercely. Rather than ensure peace,
the treaties touched off an Indian war in eastern Washington
when some tribal members refused to relocate.
Following the U.S. government's acquisition of Native American
land for settlers, it neglected for decades to fulfill its benefactor
role as stipulated in the Point Elliott Treaty and others.
In 1870, Northern Pacific Railroad surveyors traversed Upper
Skagit land. Then white settlers arrived in greater numbers. The
native people were infuriated when settlers crossed over lands
that held the remains of their ancestors. They also suffered from
diseases traceable to white contact.
Longhouse spiritual activities were prohibited by the
government after the treaties of the mid-1850s were signed.
Determined to preserve their ancestral religion, the Indians
practiced it in secret. In the 1880s, Indian children were
prevented from practicing their religion when taken from their
families and communities to government-run boarding schools.
Nearly 120 years following the Point Elliott Treaty and other
treaties, the state of Washington attempted to regulate tribal
fishing, but the tribes resisted on legal grounds: They already
had the right to fish (and hunt) in their usual and accustomed
places. The treaties had stipulated that the tribes were not giving
up that right.
Put in mind of its treaty obligation, the federal government took
the state to court. In 1974, U.S. District Judge George H. Boldt
ruled that the tribes were entitled to 50 percent of the fish
harvests. The tribes then became fishery co-managers with the
The 11 bands of Indians that comprised the Upper Skagit Tribe
had historically inhabited the land between present-day Mount
Vernon and Newhalem in northwest Washington -- ceded by
treaty, but without land reserved for them. Years without a
reservation home caused some Upper Skagits to move to other
Three hydroelectric dams were constructed on the Upper Skagit
River, now in the North Cascades National Park:
Gorge Dam - wood (1923); masonry (1950); high
Diablo Dam - (1927-30)
Ross Dam - first stage (1940); second and third stages (1949)
The resulting three reservoirs provide power for Seattle City
Light. The three dams differ in height: Gorge - 300 feet, Diablo -
389 feet, and Ross - 540 feet. The nature of the river was
In January 1951, the tribe filed a claim with the federal
government, stating that the monetary compensation for the
lands ceded to the United States was negligently small. In
September 1968, a final judgment ordered for the tribe to be
The tribe gained formal federal recognition in the early 1970s.
A tribal constitution and by-laws were approved by the
Secretary of the Interior in 1974. In 1984, the Upper Skagit
Tribe acquired a small reservation of federal trust* land east of
The tribe's $28 million, Las Vegas style Skagit Valley
Casino Resort opened in 1995 at Bow,
halfway between Everett
Bellingham. The facility offers the members of the Upper Skagit Tribe an
employment alternative to fishing and logging. In March 2001,
an $11 million, 103-room hotel and conference center opened at
the casino. In addition, the tribe bought into the Semiahmoo
Resort on the northern Puget Sound shoreline in Blaine.
Owned by the Trillium Corporation, Semiahmoo offers a
number of resort activities, including two golf courses.
Also in March 2001, the tribe received a $90,000 EPA grant to
increase funding for the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe EPA General
Assistance Program, which is used to reach compliance with
tribal, state and federal environmental laws.
In July 2004, the tribe was slated to receive $1,369,611
from HUD's Indian Housing Block Grant Program to promote
affordable housing. The program provides funds for a full range
of housing programs to tribes or tribally designated housing
The Upper Skagit Tribe today
Approximately 504 members are enrolled in the tribe with more
than 450 members living on the reservation. The tribe is
governed by a seven-member council. Council members serve
for staggered three-year terms. The tribal chairperson and vice
chairperson are selected for one-year terms by the entire voting
membership. The tribal center is located about five miles east of
There are approximately 30 full-time workers, depending upon
seasonal fluctuations. There also are five contract
The tribe maintains an economic development office and has an
economic development plan. It also has developed its own
habitat restoration program.
The tribe also operates an early childhood development center
that provides services to children in Head Start, Child Care, and
Prekindergarten. Through a partnership between Child Care,
Head Start and Washington State’s PreK program, the Upper
Skagit Tribe serves 20 children in a full-day, year-round
At the Upper Skagit Tribal Health Facility in Sedro-Woolley,
the tribe provides limited primary care services in a
4,500-square foot medical clinic built in 1995. The tribe
operates a Family Services Program that employs a full-time
physician's assistant, a public health nurse one day per week,
two full-time community health representatives and one full-time
alcohol counselor. Specialty services include Women, Infants
and Children (WIC) and the Early Childhood Education and
Assistance Program (ECEAP). Through a contract with the
Lummi Nation, Upper Skagit purchases the on-site services of a
nutritionist one day a week, a mental health counselor two days
a week, and a physician one day per month. The tribe also
provides outpatient substance abuse treatment services.
In addition to such modern activities, the Upper Skagit people
today maintain a strong tie to their ancestral culture. It is by
preserving stories, traditions and customs that they preserve
their tribal identity.
*Land owned by the federal government, but maintained by a