The Samish Indians of Guemes Island, 1792-1986

Our research was part of an educational requirement at Western Washington University. We found there wasn't a written history of the Indians who lived on Guemes Island, so we collected information from government documents, textbooks, newspapers and conversations with tribal leaders. Ken Hansen, chairman of the Samish Indians, generously allowed us extensive use of the tribal archives.

Dawn Ashbach and Janice Veal, History 391, Spring 1986

1792 - First Spanish sighting of old Guemes village

1800 - Some old Guemes villagers move to Fidalgo and Samish Island

1845-1900 - Marked time of great tumultuous changes for Samish Indians

1850 - Old Guemes villagers move to Samish Island

1847-1855 - 92% population loss among the Samish

1855 - Point Elliott Treaty, January 22, 1855

1869 - Forced from Samish Island, relocated on March Point

1873 - Many Samish Indians move to new Guemes village

1870-1917 - Religious practices banned on reservations, Guemes becomes religious center for area Indians

1875 - Indian Homestead Act

1876 - Tribal leaders signed land agreement for 232 acres under Homestead Act

1903 - Decline of new Guemes village began

1904 - Sold one parcel of land, lost the other at new Guemes village

1912-1915 - Villagers left homestead for La Conner, Samish Island, Blanchard, Bayview, Guemes, Orcas and Lopez Islands

1917 - Ended ceremonial use of the new Guemes village site

1925 - The Samish began to legally formalize Tribal government

1950's - Government referred to Samish Tribe as "Non-Recognized" rather than "Landless tribe"

1975 - Tribe filed a Petition for Re-recognition with Dept of the Interior

1978 - Petition returned for revision

1979 - Samish Tribes Petition for Federal Acknowledgement resubmitted

1982 - Tribe's petition denied

1983 - Maiden of Deception Pass placed at old Samish village site

1984 - Legal appeals continue

1985 - Markets explored for Samish art

1986 - Old style family canoe carved by T. Powell and Samish Carving School. Samish museum to begin at Ship Harbor site (next to International ferry)

Spanish explorers aboard the Sutil and the Mexicana recorded the first European sighting of the Indians on Guemes Island in 1792:

"We saw a village close to the northwest point and upon examining it with the telescope found it to consist of two large houses. Several Indians ran down to the beach, got into a canoe and steered for the schooners . . . In it an old man and four young ones of pleasant appearance came boldly alongside and gave us brambleberries . . . We gave each a metal button and they repeated their gifts in small portions to obtain something else in exchange. . . They also gave us dried shell fish of the sort sailors call verdigones, threaded on a cord of bark. We accepted a sufficient quantity of them and also obtained from them a blanket of dog's hair, quilted with feathers and a tanned deer's hide."1

Samish archives personnel informed us this was actually the Old Guemes Village located by the marsh on south beach.

Guemes was named after Senor Don Juan Vicente de Guemes Pacheco y Padilla Orcasites y Aguayo, Conde de Revilla Gigedo, the Viceroy of Mexico who funded the expedition. Ken Hansen, chairman of the Samish Tribal Council, said the Indian name for Guemes Island translates into English as Dog Island.

Contact with "foreigners" was limited to trade until the early 1840's when extensive settlement by whites began. Early settlers pushed the Samish from their traditionally inhabited lands. Villages located on Guemes and Samish Island historically had served the Samish as their permanent homes. In addition, the Samish had residences located on Lopez, Cypress, Orcas, and San Juan Islands. Exclusive hunting, gathering, and fishing territories were: Samish, Guemes, Cypress, the smaller islands south of Lummi, the north and west shores of Fidalgo, Blakely and Decatur Islands, and the east and south shores of Lopez, and the Eastsound area of San Juan Island. They had non-exclusive fishing spots, which they shared with other Indian groups as far north as Chuckanut Bay, and as far south as Smith Island. 2

The Old Guemes Village, was located on south beach between the marsh and the present Ferry dock. It consisted of a single segmented cedar plank house 1,250 feet long; it was completely abandoned after the 1830's, when all of the villagers moved to Samish Island.3 The reasons are unclear, but Ken Hansen informs us the move may have been caused by disease, raids from the north, or spiritual concerns. The village on Samish Island was in existence simultaneously with that of the Old Guemes Village. The Samish Village was located on the south shore of the east end of Samish Island.

The lands historically used by the Samish tribe were ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Point Elliot, which was signed in 1855 and ratified in 1859. This was one of a series of treaties with the Washington Indians negotiated by Governor Isaac Steven to provide property for white settlement. The Indians agreed to the land cession in return for the right to maintain hunting, fishing, and gathering rights on all open and unclaimed lands, plus the anticipation of being given reservation land. The Samish were not listed in the final draft of the treaty, but did participate in the treaty negotiations and were considered covered by the treaty under the signature of the Lummi "Chief". The Samish resisted moving to the reservation at Lummi, and remained on Samish Island until violent pressures of the white settlement led to their moving to the western shores of March Point in 1869 in anticipation of that area being set aside as a Samish Reservation. White settlers, desiring the land, blocked the creation of a March Point reservation through court actions.

The Samish relocated to the site of the New Guemes village about 1873. The New Guemes village was on the west shore of Guemes facing Cypress Island and Bellingham Channel. It was built on land that was homesteaded by Sam Watchoat (Citizen Sam) and Bob Edwards under the Indian Homestead Act of 1835. 4 Lucius Blackinton and James Matthews, who were married to Samish women, were the whites who co-signed the land agreement on April 5, 1876, giving Watchoat and Edwards 232 acres. The longhouse was built of cedar planks and measured 480 feet long and 40 feet wide, spanning the dividing lines of the two lots. The nine men who worked on the house shared ownership. The family leaders, according to Suttles who had interviewed Charlie Edwards, were: Sam Watchoat, Billy Edwards, Harry Whulholten, Barney Whulholten, Bob Edwards, Charlie Edwards, Dick Edwards, Tommy Bobb and Cowiegan. The extended families of these men were not all Samish. They included Klallam, Nuwhaha, Lummi, Swinomish, Skagit, and Cowichen, who for the most part had married into the Samish tribe.5 This is due in large part because exogamy was practiced among the Samish, which required marriages outside the tribe or family unit. This was done to improve tribal relationships, to extend fishing rights, to prevent possible raidings and to uphold the taboo against marrying any relatives. Generally, Coast Salish women lived with their husband's tribe. Population figures show a 92% population loss between the years 1847 and 1855, because of epidemics of small pox and measles, plus raids from northern tribes. The population decreased from 2,000 in 1847 to 150 in 1855. Records from an Indian census dated 1881 show the New Guemes village had a permanent population of 112 but often had as many as 150 in residence.6

The New Guemes village probably started to decline about 1900. Residential and ceremonial use of the land continued until the land was sold between 1904 and 1906. The decline may be attributed to the changing culture, economics and the loss of the right to important fishing grounds, taking away the means of making a living. Another possible cause was the expiration of the trust period on the homestead land, which would have expired in 1901. The land was sold because of non-payment of taxes in 1906. Many of the New Guemes villagers moved to the Swinomish Reservation at this time, while others found off reservation areas to settle. Charlie Edwards took many family members to work at the cannery at Ship Harbor, while Harry Whulholten took his family back to Samish Island where they continued to live until after his death.7

Coast Salish political organization was not overly structured. "Chiefs" and "tribes" did not exist in the same way as among the eastern and mid-western Indians. Villages consisted of autonomous groupings of family units. Extended families typically made up the villages, which possessed a similar language, mutual interests, and community behaviors. Each village was stratified into the noble class, commoners and slaves. Each house or longhouse held several families. Often the heads of the households were brothers or male cousins who were high ranking because of kinship ties, spiritual wealth or a general respect for skills or abilities. There seemed to be room to disagree, by either ignoring the decision or simply moving to a different family group. There was no separation between community laws and spiritual laws.

There was an important link between tribal government and the Se'own, the Winter Dance Ceremony. Decisions made during the Se'own, provided the social order and the laws for the community. Leaders were bound by these laws to rule for the benefit of the entire village. Community discipline was often administered during the Se'own; if someone had done something wrong, the dancers would point out the misbehavior through initiating him into a dance to show his error and how to correct it. 19 If an individual or family violated important social or spiritual laws, they were subjected to humiliation, public shaming, and ostracism from the community or death. Words and body language were generally techniques most frequently used as punishment, as loss of respect was the most effective means of punishment. If ostracism occurred, the individual or family was then forced to establish a new village or join another village. Likewise, if a family did not care for a community decision, they would sometimes show their displeasure by removing their planks from their portion of the longhouse wall and leave the community.8 Originally all members of the village attended the gathering, which often lasted all night. Hospitality was a major concern during the Se'own and the potlatch.

The potlatch was a highly significant social event for the Samish, as it was with the other Coast Salish groups. Potlatches were held at times of celebration such as marriages, children reaching adulthood, naming, memorials or construction of a new longhouse. An individual family would invite other families and villages to witness the ceremony. The family or village hosting the ceremony had the responsibility for feeding and housing all attending. The potlatch was used by village leaders to reaffirm their rank, establish new ranking and to redistribute wealth. It also served opportunities to pass on family histories and oral traditions with the invited groups and to provide the validation for the event occurring.9 The central purpose was the witnessing of the inheritance of the right to use songs, dances, names, houses, spiritual successor ship, and oral histories, as well as rights to fishing, gathering, and hunting grounds. The more the host family gave away, the more prestige they held, in some cases this was done to the extent of destitution, thus showing the hosts confidence in their spiritual abilities to regain material wealth. The potlatch enforced the belief that it was more important to take care of one's spiritual well being rather than to be hampered by acquiring material objects.10

Guemes Island provided the location for the Samish to continue their spiritual and political endeavors without much interference. An article in the Anacortes newspaper dated January 19, 1884, reads:

"Great numbers of canoes containing entire families of Indians, the women and girls dressed in the brightest colors, passed Anacortes on Tuesday on their way home from the potlatch held at their rendezvous on Guemes Island."

According to Suttle, tribes came from the lower Puget Sound, the Olympic Peninsula, Vancouver Island, and the Fraser River, as well as the local area to attend potlatches and other ceremonial occasions on Guemes. Father Chirouse, a Catholic Oblate, amongst others "managing Indian affairs", complained of "their" Indians running off and attending various ceremonies on Guemes.11 Most ceremonies occurred from November through March, as April through October was the time to prepare for winter by fishing, hunting, gathering, and preserving. In the summer the potlatch was a pleasant time of feasting, games, contests, canoe and foot racing, wrestling, gambling and storytelling that would last long as three days to two weeks.12

One of the most important elements of the religious life of the Salish was the acquisition of the personal spirit. After puberty, girls and boys were guided in ways to obtain their own guardian spirit to protect and guide them throughout their life. They were taught to "earn" their spirit, through purifying baths, fasting, and exercises in overcoming their fears such as being alone, the dark or spirit ghosts. After a purifying bath and given instructions to fast, Individually, they were sent out into the woods on a vision quest. They were told to watch for an animal or object that wanted to become their spirit helper. Usually the vision would come to the child again in a dream. A spirit guide could also come during an intense illness. If one failed on the original search, they would go out again and again, until they received a spirit power; this could occur even late in life. It was possible to receive more than one guardian spirit. The spirit would eventually reveal a song and a dance to the person. It was not unusual for the spirit song to make its owner sick the first time it was revealed to him. It was most important to obtain a spirit song, as spirit singing dominated religious life and guided secular activities. A special healing power spirit usually appeared only to men of high rank. If one did appear to a poor ranking individual, he was usually prevented from validating it by the cost of the ceremony it would require. Andrew Williams of the Swinomish tribe says it took him 34 years to "earn" his spirit after first viewing it at age 16. His spirit sang him his song, showed him his dance, and instructed him in the proper ceremonial clothing. Earning refers to meeting the demands of the spirit such as, fasting, bathing, rituals, or ceremonies.

Often, spirits were inherited from deceased family members.13 It was highly unusual to receive a spirit outside of the family lines. Historically, religious power was a private acquisition based on one's personal religious experience between himself and his spiritual guide. The sources of power are living things, natural objects, and natural forces. Guides are not sources of power, but serve as advisors on how to conduct oneself on life's long journey. Individual power was obtained through the power of the spiritual guide; the guide helps him attain certain abilities.14 He is allowed to demonstrate his song, dance, and dress, but must not use descriptive words or pictures to reveal his spiritual helper's true being or identity. The relationship between an individual and his spirit helper is cooperative, but it may take years to learn how to properly handle it.

There are two general classes of spirits: s'alia (sahleeliah), the layman spirit, and xun'm (wha-nahm), the shaman spirit. The layman spirit guides ordinary things; the shaman spirit is typical of shamanic powers cross-culturally. Sometimes there would be a reluctance to accept a power that often resulted in the illness of the person. Most powers, particularly shamanistic ones, made many demands, which the individual was required to fulfill to insure cooperation of the spirit. It was also necessary to finance a ceremony to validate the spirit. Attendants needed to be paid, costumes and ceremonial objects purchased, plus food and lodging.15

The skwani'lic (skwaneelich) is a ceremonial power object used during important ceremonies, such as the Se‚own It is an oblong cedar frame with rounded corners and open grill work, generally about 1.5 feet long, carved by someone in a family who has inherited the right to carve it. When the owner sings his song, the boards move in a way that is identical to that of a human being possessed by a spirit. Two people hold a board, at times trading off with two other people, one with two hands on the board, the other with one. It pulls them about, sometimes violently, swooping and jerking. The boards were used in ceremonies, to help find lost objects or souls, or to find good fishing and hunting locations.16 Traditionally, they were used only four nights a year for four years and then stored in a cedar tree.17 According Charlie Edwards, the skwani‚lic have lost most of their power because they have been used incorrectly. He says this has affected other ceremonial objects such as the tas-tad (tuhsted) which is a four foot long cedar pole with a purpose similar to that of the skwani'lic.

Dancers encouraged the strength of the spirit by the use of drums and singing. The drummer had the role of watching the dancer and gearing his beat to the tempo of the dancer. When a spirit dancer prepares to sing his song, he is dominated by something beyond his usual self. 18 The dancers are either red paint dancers, or black paint dancers, according to instructions from their spiritual guide. Red represents river spirits; black represents marine spirits.

Coast Salish Indians revere the cedar as the Plains Indians revere the buffalo as a source of power and spiritual strength, as well as providing most of life‚s necessities. The Samish built cedar longhouses for their permanent residences. Large cedar poles were used for framing, split cedar planks were placed horizontally and tied with cedar withes. Sometimes the planks were placed vertically with their ends driven into the ground. The Samish traditionally carved house posts that were part of the interior support system. These house posts were carved with designs or figures that represented the various family crests of the longhouse families. The roofs were generally shed type, with a gentle pitch, which were useful for drying fish. When the people left the winter village to fish, they sometimes removed the roofs and siding of the longhouse to be used in the construction of a temporary summerhouse during the fishing season. Cedar and cattail mats were also used to make tent-like houses.


Above is a picture of the "New Guemes Village" as it existed in 1912. By this time the village was only used as a temporary summer residence, but it provides us with the opportunity for study. The picture shows the longhouse and several smaller buildings on the slope in back, which were private dwellings. The original longhouse extended to the left of the picture where you see exposed beams, to about 450 feet. The house had six carved interior house posts. There were nine owners, but only six had the privilege of having a post. (The occupants are listed on page 3.) June M. Collins, a cultural anthropologist, maintains there was a house post in front of the longhouse. "A house in this later village (New Guemes) had a carved post in front of it, apart from the house itself. 20 (Photo included) The longhouse was divided into partitions, with each family having its own space. Along the inside walls were two rows of platforms, closest to the walls were the sleeping platforms, which were about two and one-half feet off the floor. The next level, raised about one foot, provided seating. Storage shelves were above the platforms and held winter provisions of dried foods stored in baskets and ladders were used to reach the shelves. Woven mats hung from the ceilings as room dividers. Mats were also used as seating and sleeping cushions. Fires were arranged in the center of the house, smoke was let out the roof by sliding the boards to one side. Each family had its own fire and food supply. There were times, of course, when meals would be shared such as when a hunter or fisherman had a big catch or a ceremony.

The giant cedar provided the Samish with the raw material for canoe making. They were known for their excellent canoes that were built according to the need: fishing, carrying passengers in open waters, duck and seal hunting. Some were as long as 50 feet by 4 feet wide. Traditionally, the canoes were dug out using stone and mussel tools; the interior was steamed wider using the immersion of hot rocks placed into water in the canoe cavity and stretched by placing sticks across the opening. Sails were originally made of cedar bark matting. Generally there were only one or two canoe carvers in a village who held prestigious ranking. Before beginning any project, the canoe builder would ceremoniously seek assistance from his spiritual guide.

The men and women were bound by traditional activities. The men traditionally fished, hunted, carved and protected the village. The women wove baskets and blankets, collected berries, roots and firewood, dried fish and clams, and prepared food. The children spent their time playing and learning the skills they would need to be a contributing member of the family unit. The Samish were known for their basketry, cedar was an integral part of many of them. They made two types of baskets, the coiled (hard) basket and the more common plaited basket. Some baskets had a "tump-line" which served as a strap for wearing baskets on their backs or across their forehead when gathering. Cedar roots were used for the coiled baskets, and cedar bark was used for the plaited baskets. Surface decorations were made with a variety of dyed materials such as other barks, bear grass, and horsetail roots. The gathering and preparation of the basket materials was done in the summer while the weaving took place during the winter months. The tighter woven baskets served as berry picking containers and for storage. The coiled baskets were made tight to hold water for cooking purposes. Heated rocks were placed in these baskets filled with water to boil the water for cooking.

Large basket cradle in the private collection of the Blackington family.

During our interview with "Bubble" Finley, longtime Guemes Island resident, she recalled that as a young girl of five and six. She spent two summers with the Indians on the west beach of Guemes, in 1908 and 1909. She recalled the Indian women collecting materials and making baskets while sitting on the beach and the men arriving home with their catch of fish.

Animal hair, bird down, and cedar fibers were also woven to make loincloths, skirts, hats and blankets and. Special wooden beaters were designed to make the cedar pliable and soft to be cut into strips and woven. Skins of small animals and birds were sewn together for clothing. Leather moccasins were used but the people usually went barefoot. Weaving was a specialty of the Samish women. Dogs were raised as a source of wool for their weavings. Early explorers described them as large white Pomeranian type dogs. "Bubble" remembers the dogs as looking like Spitz and about 17 inches tall; the breed is now extinct. She recalls watching them pulling at the hair to remove it. The dogs were also sheared at regular intervals using mussel shell knives. According to Ken Hansen, the dogs were kept on Guemes Island when the villagers were living on Samish and on Samish when they were on Guemes. Some members of the village would travel daily to feed and water them. In Suttle's book, he describes the dogs as being owned by the men, however, the dogs hair was used exclusively for weaving by the women.

Blankets were woven on two bar looms, which consisted of two horizontal rollers held upright by two posts. The warp was run around the rollers, so that the weaving could be pulled around to face the weaver. The blankets were done from the top down, generally with a twill weave, the weft was put in loosely with the fingers so that both the weft and the warp could be seen. Spindles, three or four feet long, with decoratively carved whorls were used to spin the fibers to be woven. The women twisting it on their thighs might also spin the fibers into thread.

Modern Salish woman spinning with whorl.

Dog hair, goat wool, animal fur, duck and goose down, cattails and other plant fibers were also used for the weavings. Natural dyes were used, creating reds, greens and yellows; elaborate examples can be seen in various museums. Cattails were also woven for mattresses, room dividers and clothing.

The Samish had an abundance of food sources: root vegetables, bulbs, berries, meat and seafood, most importantly salmon. The women's responsibility was to gather berries, bulbs, roots and shellfish. The men hunted and fished. The women used digging sticks about two and one-half feet long for digging the roots and bulbs. These sticks were also used for gathering seafood, such as clams and oysters. The shellfish were generally gathered in open work twined baskets allowing the water to drain out. The berries and bulbs were usually collected in watertight-coiled baskets. Some foods could be gathered any time of the year, but some had particular seasons when they were available, such as Camas bulbs, relative of the onion, which were harvested in August. They have a sweet taste and were added to other foods as a seasoning, as well as eaten alone. The bulbs could be stored raw or cooked, but they were usually steamed and stored in cattail bags for the winter.

" The men would go off fishing early in the morning while the women dug. By noon the men would be back with enough fish and the women would have dug enough camas for steaming."21

Most other roots and bulbs were steamed like the camas, although some like the cattail and the shoots of the horsetail rush were eaten raw. Many varieties of berries were gathered: huckleberry, blackberry, elderberry, salmonberry, among others. Soapberry was gathered and whipped and eaten as ice cream. Families often set up camps to pick a berry patch. Berries were eaten fresh or made into cakes and dried for use during the winter. Shellfish and sea animals were collected: mussels, cockles, clams, oysters, sea cucumbers, anemones, chitons, and many types of crabs. Some were eaten raw while others steamed. Many varieties of clams were smoked and dried for winter.

Samish men hunted locally for birds, deer and other small land animals. They occasionally ventured west to the outer islands and east into the mountains in search of elk, beaver and mountain goats. Bows and arrows were used, as were traps.

" The deer trap was made simply by driving two or three stakes with sharpened ends exposed into a deer trail at a point where the deer habitually jumped over a high log. The stakes needed no cover. To the deer approaching from the other side of the log, they were invisible. The animal leaped, cleared the log, and came down to impale itself on the stakes."22

Traps were also made by simply digging pits and covering them with branches. Another method involved men and boys driving the deer into a net. Bows and arrows and nets were used to hunt ducks and geese. The mesh netting was made of nettle-fiber twine, and measured about six wide and eight feet long. The net was stretched between two tall poles, catching the birds on the fly.

The water provided the Samish with their greatest food source. Salmon was the most important food source: springs, silvers, sockeye, humpback steelhead and dog salmon. A spiritual ceremony involving the entire village celebrated the first salmon caught of the season. Salmon were caught using herring bait and line made from willow bark or nettle-fiber twine or nets made from cedar bark twine, harpoons, reef nets and weirs.

" . . the Samish used to build a weir and trap at the mouth of the Samish River, but by the time they left Samish Island (about 1875) they had already discontinued the practice in favor of drag seines."23

Ling cod and rockfish were caught using shuttlecocks carved from cedar, maple or cherry bark. The fisherman anchored his canoe at low tide over the kelp bed, the lure was then secured onto the prongs of a spear and forced down into the water. The spear was jerked away, leaving only the lure in the water. The lure would start spinning to the surface, attracting the fish. Pitchfork-like spears were also used to catch the fish as it came close to the boat. Harpoons, nets and clubs were used to catch porpoise and seals. The meat was usually steamed in a pit for immediate use, or preserved by drying in the sun or over the fire. Halibut were caught in the late spring or early summer using hooks were made from hemlock, yew or white fir, steamed into a U-shape and measured about four inches wide and about six inches high. The bait was typically skinned octopus and the line was usually made of kelp or twisted cedar line. A float was made from seal bladder; the fisherman knew when he had a strike if the float went below the surface. Seine nets made of nettle fiber twine were used for catching flounder. The nets were set at low tide; the fish were chased into the nets by a wader. If dogfish were caught, they were not eaten, but the oil was preserved, and the skin was dried for sandpaper. The Samish held the fishing rights in the Swinomish Slough and Saratoga Passage, where the smelt spawned in the winter; they were collected using large flat sticks. The Samish were fortunate to live in an environment which provided an abundance of natural resources.

Among the Coast Salish, the Samish, Cowlitz, Steilacoom, Duwamish, Snohomish and the Snoqualmie tribes are currently in litigation seeking official recognition by the Federal government. To obtain Bureau of Indian Affairs aid, and reservation land, the tribes must be "recognized" by the federal government. The Samish have been trying to regain treaty rights given to them by the Treaty of Point Elliott, signed in 1855. Under the treaty, they were lumped together with the Lummi tribe, and expected to share Lummi reservation land. The government provided Bureau of Indian Affairs services to the Samish tribe through attorney contracts for the tribe in 1925, 1933, 1950 and 1961. During the early 1950's, Treaty Rights Indentification Cards were issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to Samish tribal members, authorizing the members to fish without state interference. Sometime in the mid-1950's, the tribe began to be referred to as a "Non-Recognized" Tribe, where previously they had been referred to as "Landless" in government paperwork. The Samish still retain their fishing rights under the Boldt decision. Their court appeals have met with no success, the government has maintained they have failed to prove enough continuity from treaty time, 1855 to 1910, although this was the time that the Guemes Village was established under the Homestead Act of 1875. The government currently refuses to re-recognize the Samish tribe because they no longer are provided services by the Bureau of Internal Affairs. To use Ken Hansen's words, "this is a real Catch-22 situation". 24

Various allotment acts were passed by Congress in the 1870's and 1880's which authorized Indians residing off reservations to receive individual homestead allotments up to 160 acres to be held in federal trust or protected status. Samish Indians Bob Edwards and Sam Watchoat established their own tribal land base under the Indian Homestead Act of 1875 on the west beach of Guemes, the New Guemes village. For thirty years things went fairly well, they established a longhouse, developed a lumber enterprise, and continued in the fishing business. This property was lost sometime between 1904 and 1906, one parcel was sold to prevent a sheriff's sale, and the other sold in 1907.

Federal policy changed again in 1953 regarding Indians. Under Eisenhower's administration, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was to be phased out, tribes were to be terminated, and all reservations abolished. Sixty-four tribes in Oregon were terminated, the National Congress of American Indians headed by Spokane's Chief Joseph Garry as president, spearheaded the fight to preserve the BIA and the Indian as a distinct people deserving special treatment. However, the BIA began to withdraw their services from all unrecognized tribes, and the Samish, among others became officially unrecognized at this time.

During the Reagan administration funding was cut to all Indian services and tribes were asked to accept responsibility for using and developing their own programs. As a result, some tribal governments have become more sophisticated and tribal business ventures have broadened. Federal directives to "go ahead, straighten it all out yourselves", must seem a very large order to any tribe, the government tried for two hundred years. But since the government is trying to get out of Indian business, it doesn't presently look good for a tribe seeking "recognition" and the benefits that go with it. In an attempt to regain their cultural heritage, the Samish are recording the language of their elders to develop a Samish dictionary, resurrecting the traditional religion and renewing their artistic heritage. According to Sally Snyder, a Seattle anthropologist, who we met at the Samish tribal office, tribal religions are making a comeback. Syo'wen, the Coast Salish spirit religion, sometimes called the spirit dance or smoke house religion, is enjoying a new resurgence among young Samish Indians. The red and black dancers, the spirit quest and the use of the skwani'lic cedar ceremonial power object and healing board, are being brought out of the closet. The Shaker religion, founded in 1881, a blend of the traditional Indian values and Christian beliefs is also enjoying new popularity.

In 1986, tribal efforts centered around the realization of the Ship Harbor Samish Cultural Center, to be located by the Washington State Ferry dock, west of Anacortes. The center will be a means to educate people regarding Indian history and arts, and will be a place where Indian artisans will demonstrate Samish arts such as basketry, spinning, weaving, and carving. The plans have been drawn, permission has been secured to build on the site, and some grant money has been provided. Ground breaking ceremonies are scheduled for this summer.

First Nations, an agency funded by the Ford Foundation is designed to provide technical, economic assistance to selected Indian tribes. Recently, it chose the Samish and the Skagit tribes, and is in the process of developing markets in the United States and overseas for their products. Markets are being researched and developed for knitted products, jewelry, basketry and carving.

Many Samish leaders feel the return of the Maiden of Deception Pass to her proper place in 1983, at the site of an ancient Samish village at the mouth of Deception Pass, has resulted in the prosperity the Samish are now enjoying. Tracy Powell, a self-taught artist was chosen to create the cedar pole honoring the Samish legend of Ko-Kwal-alwoot. In 1981, he began researching Salish carving. At that time, he found no readily available information and there were no traditional Samish carvers left to model. Northern British Columbian and Alaskan art has been accepted by the public as Salish art, as it was believed there were no definitive pieces of Salish art. Powell researched museums and libraries to put together a slide library documenting a distinct Salish carving technique using triangles, u-shapes, and o-shapes. He has written and illustrated a manual to provide an instructional base for a Salish woodcarving school that began in the Fall of 1985. This Spring the school began to carve a canoe using traditional techniques. Powell is currently working with the tribe to preserve the art of traditional Samish carving.

Tracy Powell begins carving a traditional canoe.




1 Wayne P. Suttles, Coast Salish and Western Washington Indians 1, The Economic Life of the Coast Salish of Haro and Rosario Straits (New York: Garland Publishing, 1974), T). 246-7.

2 Ibid. p. 41.

3 Ibid. p. 43.

4 Ibid. p. 45.

5 Ibid. p. 473-6.

6 Conversation with Ken Hansen

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Philip Druker, Indians of the Northwest Coast (Gordon City, New York: The Natural History Press, 1955), p. 135-6.

10 Kenneth Hansen, The Maiden of Deception Pass, A Spirit in Cedar (Anacortes, WA: Samish Experience Productions, 1983), p. 18-19.

11 Suttles, p. 320.

12 June McCormick Collins, Valley of the Spirits (Seattle, WA: U.W. Press, 1974), p. 135-136.

13 Joyce Annabel Wilce, "Modern Spirit Dancing," University of Washinqton Thesis Under Supervision of Erna Gunther, May 1941, p. 102-105.

14 Suttles, p. 327.

15 Wike, p. 55-57.

16 Ibid. p. 78-9.

17 Suttles, p. 358.

18 Pamela Amoss, Coast Salish Spirit Dancing (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1978), p. 121.

19 Ibid. p. 143.

20 Collins, p. 30.

21 Suttles, p. 60.

22 Ibid. p. 90.

23 Ibid. p. 146.

24 The Seattle Times, Special Report: Washington Indians, Sunday, December 15, 1985 through Saturday, December 20, 1985.



Amoss, Pamela. Coast Salish Spirit Dancing. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1978.

Andrews, Ralph W. Indian Primitive, New York: Bonanza Books.

Ashwell, Reg. Coast Salish. Seattle, WA: Hancock House, 1978.

Collins, June McCormick. Valley of the Spirits; The Upper Skagit Indians of Western Washington. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1974.

Druker, Philip. Indians of the Northwest Coast. Gordon City, New York: The Natural History Press, 1955.

Haeberlin, Hermann, and Erna Gunther. The Indians of Puget Sound. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1952.

Hansen, Kenneth. The Maiden of Deception Pass, A Spirit in Cedar. Anacortes, WA: The Samish Experience Productions, 1983.

Hansen, Kenneth. Petition for Re-recognition with Department of the Interior. Anacortes, WA, 1979.

Sampson, Chief Martin J. Indians of Skagit County. Mount Vernon, WA: Skagit Historical Society, 1972.

Suttles, Wayne P. Coast Salish and Western Washington Indians I, The Economic Life of the Coast Salish of Haro and Rosario Straits. New York: Garland Publishing, 1974.

Wagner, Henry. Spanish Exploration in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Extract from the Navigation by Pantoja. New York: AMS Press, 1933.


The Pacific Northwest Quarterly. "The Swinomish People and Their State", by O.C. Upchurch. Volume XXVII, No. 4. October 1936.

University of Washington Thesis Under Supervision of Erna Gunther. "Modern Spirit Dancing", by Joyce Annabel Wike. May 1941.


The Seattle Times. "Special Report: Washington Indians", Sunday, December 15, 1985 through Saturday, December 20, 1985.


Tags: History