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Samish Culture

Samish Culture

The Samish Indian Nation is the successor to the large and powerful Samish Tribe, a signatory to the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855. The Tribe's traditional territory stretches over a wide region of the Salish Sea in Northwest Washington, from the tops of the Cascades Mountains to the far western shores of the San Juan Islands. The beauty, abundance and variety of the region since time immemorial provides a rich backdrop for our history and cultural traditions that remain strong today.

Linguistically and culturally, Samish are part of the Coast Salish, speaking a dialect of Coast Salish known as “Straits Salish,” rather than a Lushootseed dialect as some of our immediate neighbors to the east.

The Samish were historically comprised of four important social groupings: the family, the house group, the villages, and the tribe as a whole. High class tribal members married far outside of their surroundings and relations, fostering a network of “kinships”.  Tribal members relied on these relationships during bad times in order to be able to access areas of food and shelter that were not currently in their home territory. 

Samish people were respected for their spiritual strength as well as their skillful carving of canoes and construction of longhouses. One of those longhouses on the eastern end of Samish Island, measured several hundred feet with some documents reporting it to be as long as 1,250 feet. In 1847 the Tribe had over 2,000 members. Twelve years later at the time of Treaty of Point Elliott negotiations, raids from Northern Tribes and epidemics of measles, smallpox, tuberculosis, and influenza had decreased the Samish population to about 150. Documents show 113 Samish were present in Mukilteo at the time of the Point Elliott Treaty signing in 1855.

Our Relationship With Nature:

Samish oral history includes teachings of the plant people, the sea creatures, the fur bearing and winged creatures. These stories passed down from our ancestors convey how both the natural and spiritual worlds entwine and cannot be separated. These teachings, also called our Chelangen, guide Samish people in their daily lives and offers a unique and irreplaceable system of beliefs, which takes us through the transitions of life from birth to death and beyond.

Our elders would often tell us when we were growing up that, “When the tide goes out our table is set for dinner.”  Nearly everything we need to survive can be found living on the beaches or in the waters close to shore. In gratitude for accepting any one of these gifts we always use a prayer or a song of thanks for the gift that was left for us by the ancestors to survive such as the clam, the oyster, the salmon, the waters, the air, the roots, and everything else in nature.

As saltwater people living close to forested and prairie shores, Samish collectively accessed a wide variety of traditional foods; women and children harvested sprouts, bulbs, roots and shoots, berries, shellfish, sea urchins, and crab. Men organized beach seines, reef nets, and weirs to manage dozens of distinct fish runs, including all 5 species of Pacific Salmon, smelt, herring, steelhead trout, halibut, sucker, chub and occasionally sturgeon. Men also arranged hunting parties for upland birds, waterfowl, small game, deer, elk, and seal in season.

Treaty Rights, Recognition and Territory:

In March of 1958, the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) made four significant findings regarding the Samish Tribe in its efforts to pursue land claims against the federal government for land that was taken by the Treaty of Point Elliot in 1855 without adequate compensation. First, the Court ruled that the Samish Tribe bringing the case had continuously existed as a functioning tribal government from the time of first European contact in 1792 up through the date of the Court’s decision. Second, the Court ruled that the Samish Tribe bringing the case was the successor in interest to the historical Samish Tribe that signed the Treaty of Point Elliot. Third, regarding the historical territory exclusively occupied by the Samish, the ICC held that, “The Samish held Samish Island, Guemes Island, eastern Lopez Island, Cypress Island, and Fidalgo Island.” Fourth, the ICC held that the area ceded by the signatory tribes in the Treaty of Point Elliott includes the whole of the areas alleged by petitioner to have been used and occupied by the Samish Indians in aboriginal times.” The ICC awarded (minimal) compensation to the Samish Tribe for the inadequate compensation paid by the United States under the Treaty of Point Elliott to the Samish Tribe for the lands it had exclusively occupied in aboriginal times and that had been ceded in the Treaty.

As a treaty signatory, the Samish Tribe’s legal existence continued unless expressly terminated by an Act of Congress. Because most Samish tribal members refused to relocate to one of the reservations established by the Point Elliott Treaty and instead remained in their traditional territory practicing their traditional lifestyle, the federal government had limited contact with the Tribe over the years. The federal government never had a formal list of the Indian tribes it officially recognized until the late 1970s. The Samish Tribe was on an internal list of federally recognized tribes prepared by a clerk in the Interior Department in 1966, listed with other tribes that had not adopted a constitution under Section 16 of the Indian Reorganization Act. Then in 1969, in what a federal appeals court called an “arbitrary” and “wrongful” act, the same BIA clerk left Samish off the revised internal list of tribes. The clerk testified 24 years later that there was no reason why she dropped Samish off this list. Even though there was no authority to do so, the Interior Department soon started using this internal list to determine which tribes were federally-recognized and which were not; since Samish was no longer on the list, the Interior Department started to treat the Samish Tribe as an unrecognized tribe. It took over 25 years of administrative and federal court proceedings to finally gain a full and fair trial where the Samish Tribe could prove that it had continuously existed as an Indian tribe and should never have been dropped from the list of federally-recognized tribes. In 1995, after an 8 day trial and numerous depositions and extensive discovery of federal documents, an Administrative Law Judge found that the Samish Tribe was descended from the Treaty Samish, met all the regulatory requirements necessary to qualify as a federally recognized tribe, and that there had been no legal or factual basis for the BIA to have dropped the Samish Tribe as a federally-recognized tribe in 1969. in April 1996, the Samish Tribe was formally re-recognized by the United States Department of Interior.  A federal appeals court later ruled in 2005 that the Samish Tribe should have been federally-recognized as a historical tribe in 1969.

Samish has continued to pursue the trust obligations required of the Department of Interior, and to that end obtained 76 acres of land into Federal Trust in 2006.  Samish is seeking Department of Interior acknowledgement of the Tribe's eligibility to take further lands into Trust.