The Samish Indian Nation of the San Juan Islands
With their powerful declaration against coal exports, the Lummi Nation has been in the news frequently of late. But there is another First Nations Tribe whose ancestral homes are right here in the San Juan Islands, the Samish Nation.
Last month I attended a lecture at the San Juan Island Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, featuring key speakers Rosie Cayou James and Bill Bailey, of the Samish Indian Tribe. What I expected was a dull history lesson. What I got was a profound respect and appreciation of the Samish peoples.
Rosie is what her tribe calls a “Vocalist” and Bill is a “Spiritualist.” The Samish tribes have an oral tradition, meaning they don’t write down the stories of their ancestors, they tell them. They don’t write things down, because the message or story can be perceived differently when it’s written than when speaking; you have to feel where it’s coming from through the speaker, and you can’t do that unless you’ve heard the voice of that person. Unfortunately, so many Indian tribes are losing their traditions through modernization, casinos and the like, so when there is no one to pass the stories along to, the stories are gone.
The Samish peoples were some 45 to 60 thousand strong in the 1800s throughout the San Juan Islands, comprised of the Salmon Fishing People, the Planting and Gathering People, and the Shell Fish Gathering People, all nomadic tribes. Their chief declined the US government’s offer of a reservation because they didn’t want to leave their ancestral lands. Three years later, their lands were taken from them, no deed given. Now only a handful of their tribe remain, approximately 1600 world wide and 60 here at home. Only 8 Samish people know how to speak the original language because it was forbidden once the government took over the lands. Rosie recounted how her grandfather was beaten at six years old because he was speaking his language in school – the only language he knew. He was the only Indian kid on Whidby island then. Although the tribe is scattered throughout the San Juans, their home base is in Anacortes; Rosie and Bill live on Guemes.
Rosie, a quiet, thoughtful woman, delighted us with stories of her ancestors, and sang to us while Bill accompanied her on a beautifully-decorated drum that he’d made. She sang to honor the four corners (the tribes originally lived in longhouses), the four directions, the four seasons, the four grandparents because they made your life possible. She asked us not to applaud after her song because in the Samish culture, applause is offensive; it’s noisy, and means “go away now” to the spirits of the ancestors who are always with us.
She told us about the seven Samish tribesmen who were killed in the explosion at the refinery in Anacortes, and how they planted seven cedars to honor the men. Her story of “the hitchhiker” that is carved on the tribe’s Healing Pole at the R.V. Park in Anacortes was touching; in fact, you will occasionally see people touching the totem because healing energy comes from it.
Samish People and Orcas
The Samish tribe identifies with the J14 orca line, and their naming ceremony honors the babies of that line. (See our blog post to read more about the naming ceremony.) Rosie is currently working on a children’s book entitled My Life as an Orca. It features an orca parent, and relates the concerns that an orca would have trying to care for and protect her children and grandchildren, including the time before there were too many people and ships fouling their home waters.
It has long been understood that the First Nations tribes have a special bond with nature and all living creatures, and that reverence came out in Rosie and Bill’s presentation. For the Samish tribe, the orcas are part of the family, their brothers and sisters. Rosie told a haunting story of how tribes people went out on a boat to sing to J-pod, and the pod members actually came up to the boat, hung out beside the boat, flipping their fins as if to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you.’ Another tale was of the J-pod member that came between their canoes during the Canoe Journey last year.
Samish means “those who stand up and give.” That night, Rosie and Bill gave us members of the audience the gift of experiencing just a touch of their culture. She said she envied us, because she wished it was the grandchildren of her tribe who were so interested in learning about their ways. It was a bittersweet moment.
For more information on the Samish Indian Nation check out their website, and do take a moment when you’re driving through Anacortes to stop at the R.V. park and check out the healing totem.