The original Samish homeland extended across a region of seven present-day counties in northwest Washington
. The widely scattered tribe, now based in Anacortes
, is linguistically and culturally connected to the larger Coast Salish tribe, and speaks a dialect called Straits Salish.
A brief history
The Samish people were held in high esteem by other tribes for their accomplished canoe and longhouse construction. Samish Island reportedly was home to a longhouse whose length was about 35 yards.
The tribe flourished in a generous environment. They harvested numerous foods:
Finned fishsalmon, steelhead, halibut, herring, sucker, chub and sturgeon
mollusks, sea urchins and crab
upland birds, waterfowl and shorebirds
deer, elk, and seal
sprouts, bulbs, roots, berries and fruit.
Samish reef-net fishing grounds and summer food-gathering campsites were used continually for hundreds of generations through the first third of the 20th century.
The Samish also were noted for their spiritual heritage. When foods were harvested, they were believed to be survival gifts from ancestors, to whom they responded with thanksgiving prayers or songs.
In 1847, the tribe boasted an estimated 2,000 members. However, marauding northern tribes, and measles, small pox and influenza epidemics unwittingly introduced by whites, withered the population to approximately 150 souls by 1855.
That was the year of the historic Point Elliott Treaty in which Northwest Indians ceded their homelands in exchange for federal protection and benefits. Reportedly, 113 Samish were present on the treaty grounds for the signing. The signatories also included a dozen other tribes. For reasons unknown, the tribe names Samish and Lummi were left off the final draft.
Following the treaty inking, the Samish were supposed to be relocated onto the Bellingham Bay Indian Agency. However, they refused to depart from Samish Island and other villages because they wished to avoid religious persecution by other tribes at the agency. The Samish lived on in their tiny communities scattered around the northwest islands and shores, enduring recurring run-ins with settlers for lack of a reservation they were previously promised.
In 1926, the Samish opened tribal enrollment and adopted a formal written constitution. (They would replace it with new versions in 1951, 1965 and 1974).
The federal government would not formally recognize the Samish as a tribal entity, even though they were a party to the Point Elliot Treaty. In 1934, the U.S. Court of Claims ruled that the Samish were indeed signatories, but found that their claims against the government for land that was taken by treaty terms were compensated by subsequent federal outlays issued for their welfare. Nevertheless, they filed a land claim before the Indian Claims Commission in 1951.
In March 1958, the commission issued two notable conclusions regarding the Samish tribe in their efforts to pursue land claims.
In the first, the commission held that, “The Samish held Samish Island, Guemes Island, eastern Lopez Island, Cypress Island, and Fidalgo Island.”
The second finding indicated that, “The treaty cession includes the whole of the areas alleged by petitioner to have been used and occupied by the Samish Indians in aboriginal times.”
Eventually, the Samish were awarded a settlement on October 6, 1971, in the amount of $5,755.
The Samish’s status as a federally recognized Indian tribe was lost in 1969 when a clerical oversight left it off the latest Bureau of Indian Affairs list. A nearly three-decade succession of legal struggles followed to recover federal recognition. A tendency of the Samish to disperse in search of decent livelihoods continued during that period, which caused a demographic shift from a rural to urban tribal population.
Following the historic Boldt decision of 1974, which granted certain Northwest tribes 50 percent of the allowable fishing catch, the U.S. District Court granted the Samish treaty fishing rights a year later. However, in 1981, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a decision that said the Samish had not provided adequate proof of “political and social cohesion” to fulfill the requirements for treaty fishing rights as a distinct tribe.
On April 26, 1996, the Samish tribe was "re-recognized" by the federal government, which qualified them for benefits.
The Samish Indian Nation today
Today's tribal leaders are conversant with ancestral Samish customs as well as the tools of the 21st century. The Samish Indian Nation's constitution calls for a general council, comprising all members of voting age, to actively participate in governance and cultural gatherings. As of 2004, there were 525 enrolled members. In turn, the membership is governed by an executive 11-member tribal council elected to supervise tribal policies, enrollment, economic development, legislation and justice. The tribe provides its members with:
cultural reclamation and regular observances
education, e.g. preschool and mentoring
health care and wellness
social services. There are approximately 40 full-time tribal employees.
The Samish Indian Nation cooperates with state and federal agencies on a number of grants to preserve the environment and enhance cultural resources, as well as to create a reliable economic footing for the tribe and its families. For example, the tribe collaborated with Washington State Parks to assess San Juan Islands state marine parks with an eye to restoration, archaeological site security, fresh interpretive panels and displays. The partnership seeks to make Washington recreational areas more enjoyable by informing visitors about environmental aesthetics, the ecological mindset, and Coast Salish history.
In their own words:
"The Samish are strong and committed people. We are committed to reestablishing our homelands, strengthening our tribal culture, demonstrating traditional stewardship of cultural and natural resources, and being a contributing force in the economic base of our region. In short, the tribe is continuing in the ways of their ancestors, carrying forth the values and visions of a strong Samish Indian Nation."