‘Historic’ Samish Nation housing is part of a return to ancestral land - Salish Current
June 17, 2024
‘Historic’ Samish Nation housing is part of a return to ancestral land
Richard Arlin Walker

Samish Nation Chairman Tom Wooten looks on as Marilyn Howard opens the door to her new home during a ribbon-cutting May 17 at the Samish Nation’s new 14-home neighborhood in Anacortes. (Jenna Fernandez)

June 17, 2024
‘Historic’ Samish Nation housing is part of a return to ancestral land
Richard Arlin Walker

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Lacking a reservation, the Samish Nation takes a different tack in planning for the future

For Marilyn Howard, the bright two-bedroom cottage appointed with Coast Salish décor is much more than a new, low-cost place to live. It’s a return home to ancestral land.

Howard, a Samish woman who’s spent most of her life in Bellingham, is the first resident of Xwch’ángteng (whuh-CH-ang-tun), a neighborhood of 14 homes and a community center built on 34th Street in Anacortes by the Samish Indian Nation. The Samish Nation does not have reserved lands — a reservation — and this grouping of Samish homes is believed to be the first since the Samish were forced to leave their last village on Guemes Island some 120 years ago.

Howard and others hope more such housing will be built so the Samish diaspora can return home.

“We are witnessing a historic event taking place right now,” she said. “I see a great vision for all of us: a Samish community where we all help each other in times of need.” Of her new affordable-rent home, she said, “This is just lovely.”

This is a dynamic time for the Samish Nation. As people toured Xwch’ángteng on May 17, construction was underway on D Avenue in Anacortes on the new Samish Early Childhood Education Center, which will be open to Native and non-Native children. Planning is underway for a cultural center and gathering place on Highway 20 near Campbell Lake Road; a cannabis store next to Samish’s gas station and convenience store; and possible redevelopment of the Samish Nation’s office building and duplexes on Commercial Avenue. 

The Samish Nation lacks a reservation over which it has ultimate authority over land use and taxation. But it has built a land base throughout its historical territory — a checkerboard of noncontiguous trust land and non trust land — by becoming proficient at navigating land use, permitting and taxation regulations of various municipal and county jurisdictions.

The Samish Nation’s 14-home neighborhood carries a Samish language name that means “place of coming home.” (Richard Arlin Walker)

The Samish Nation has nurtured relationships with jurisdictions with which it shares geography, partnered on public projects, and supports public services with payment in lieu of taxes on properties that have been placed in trust and are no longer on local tax rolls. 

“We’ve accomplished a fair amount, that’s for sure,” said Janet Castilleja, a member of the board of Samcor, the economic development arm of the Samish Nation. 

A strong core

First, some background: Some 113 Samish people were in Mukilteo for the presentation of the Treaty of Point Elliott in January 1855, according to Samish Nation records, and Lummi hereditary leader Chowitsoot signed the treaty on behalf of the Lummi and allied bands, including the Samish. The treaty established reservations at Lummi, Swinomish, Tulalip, Muckleshoot and Port Madison. The Samish believed they were to receive a reservation of their own. While many Samish relocated to the Lummi and Swinomish reservations, many others decided to stay on Fidalgo, Guemes, Lopez and Samish islands. 

The Samish Nation was left off a Bureau of Indian Affairs list of federally recognized tribes in 1969 and as a result was not included in U.S. v. Washingtonthe 1974 federal court decision that affirmed the right of treaty signatories to fish in their usual and accustomed territories.

Samish regained federal recognition in 1996 and opened a tribal government office with one employee in a small office above a bike store in Anacortes. 

Since then, the Samish Nation has grown to about 80 employees in 13 departments, and has acquired more than 200 acres of land on Fidalgo and Lopez islands and in Anacortes. 

“I think that the history of the Samish — the fact that we never had a reservation and we were always split up among different communities and living in different places — I think that has helped us be able to function even if we are widely separated,” said Castilleja. “There has to be a kind of strong central core that draws people in to help make things happen and there has been for a very long time.

“The dispersal started pretty early. Because our people were living in the islands and in Ferndale and Canada and Skagit Valley, I think that was a big factor in us having to do what we’ve done.” 

Partners for progress

Ryan Walters is an Anacortes City Council member, a land use attorney and former planning director for the Samish Nation. He said the relationships Samish has cultivated have been key to successful collaboration on various projects. 

Samish Nation Chairman Tom Wooten drums and sings a traditional song May 17 during the open house for the Samish Nation’s 14-home neighborhood in Anacortes. (Jenna Fernandez)

“Several projects, like the housing on 34th Street, are within the City of Anacortes’ jurisdiction. But Samish’s property on Commercial Avenue is now in trust and Samish can build whatever it wants there; it doesn’t matter what the city’s zoning is,” Walters said. That project will intersect with city infrastructure — roads, stormwater and wastewater. And when it comes to city infrastructure, Samish has to follow the neighboring jurisdiction’s rules. 

“Anywhere trust land intersects with city, county or state infrastructure, there’s a potential for some problems,” Walters said. “It’s very important to understand everybody’s role and to not have arguments about city or tribal jurisdiction, which we haven’t. The relationship between Samish and the city has been strong and we’ve been able to accomplish some joint projects that have benefitted both the city and Samish.” 

Anacortes Mayor Matt Miller said having the Samish Nation within the City of Anacortes “is an asset” to the city. 

“The Samish Indian Nation and the City of Anacortes have built a strong partnership to improve services and quality of life in the city,” Miller said. “Not only do they collaborate with the city, but they also bring resources the city is not eligible for. The Samish Nation also has some functions the city doesn’t provide or added to areas the city is working to provide addition capacity, such as an early learning center and senior housing.”

Miller and Walters noted other collaborations:

  • Obtaining funding to study the possible removal of a trestle at Fidalgo Bay that impedes tidal flow
  • A native plant project at Heart Lake to improve water quality
  • Improvements to D Avenue and 15th Street and completion of 16th Street, to accommodate the new early childhood education center.
  • Funding to repave Fidalgo Bay Road.

Proposed connection of Samish’s Summit Park campus to the city’s wastewater system represents another collaboration: the project would require extending the city’s wastewater line. “If Samish is able to access money to connect its Summit Park campus to the city wastewater system, it might help the Summit Park area connect to city sewer and get off of septic,” Walters said. “That would be an environmental benefit for all of us.”

In addition, the Samish Nation is partnering with Skagit County and the state Department of Transportation to construct a roundabout on Highway 20 near Campbell Lake Road.

Samish Nation Chairman Tom Wooten is proud of the relationship that his government has with neighboring jurisdictions. 

“We’ve developed and nurtured those relationships over the years,” he said. “I serve on the Skagit Council of Governments and on its regional transportation planning board. Our properties are checkerboarded throughout Skagit County and Anacortes and we need to stay in touch with what’s going on within those jurisdictions. The best way to do it is to be a part of that and develop this relationship with county commissioners and mayors throughout the county.”

Also, Wooten noted, “We all benefit from that relationship because the tribe’s unique relationship with the federal government is different from the county’s relationship with it. We have opportunities that the county doesn’t have.”

The roundabout is an example, Wooten said: “The Council of Governments came up with some transportation funds for the project, and Congressman Rick Larsen secured some federal transportation dollars for us as well. And it’s a state highway, right? But working through and with these other entities, we’re able to help fund that project and it’s going to come to fruition next year.” 

Need for more housing

The Samish Nation’s population today is about 2,400, about what it was in the 1840s, according to information available on the Samish Nation website. But the population is spread throughout Skagit, Whatcom, Snohomish and King counties, with some Samish families living in Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Alaska and British Columbia, according to the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board.

Wooten said Xwch’ángteng, with its two-bedroom cottages, community center, native plant gardens and common open space, has provided some among Samish’s diaspora “another reason to come home — for some, for the first time in a generation.” Indeed, Xwch’ángteng means “place of coming home.”

A member of a Native Hawai’ian delegation presents a paddle to Pat John of the Ahousaht First Nation in appreciation for his work assisting in the 2019 Canoe Journey, on the beach near the Samish Nation’s Cannery Building in Anacortes. The Samish Nation has hosted cultural gatherings here and at its nearby Fidalgo Bay Resort. (Richard Arlin Walker)

But with all of those homes already claimed, Castilleja said, housing development needs to be a priority.

“We need housing so our people can move back. That was Ken Hansen’s dream,” she said, referring to the former Samish chairman, who died in 2006. “We bought the acres above where the gas station is — 80 acres — and the dream then was to have housing there.” 

Tim King, a landscape architect who currently serves as Samish’s vice chairman, drew a site plan for those 80 acres, Castilleja said. ”But it just never happened.” The sloping terrain would make home construction there costly.

Samish Nation spent much of the ensuing years fighting the Swinomish Tribe’s opposition to Samish’s land-to-trust applications, while concurrently building its economy and land base.

“Housing is one of the main things that people in the tribe have said to me that they want,” Castilleja said. “We need to do that because we’re spread out and it’d be nice if we could be closer together.” 

Wooten agrees“Clearly the biggest hurdle [to coming home] is the cost of residing here,” he said. “That was one of the things that we wanted to do with Xwch’ángteng, to start to provide affordable housing to Samish citizens so that if they wanted to, they could come home.” But future land acquisition for housing may be slowed by availability and cost, he said.

“Our traditional territory consists of islands, and there’s just no large tracts available here to develop and the ones that are available are not developable because of the terrain,” Wooten said. Regarding the sloping 80 acres behind the gas station and convenience store, he said, “the development costs are high. We do want housing there at some point when we get enough money.” 

Wooten said the Samish Nation’s land holdings mirror its pre-contact presence throughout its historical territory — not centered in one place but located, depending on the season, at sites throughout the area. 

“When the tribe was re-recognized in 1996, we did a strategic planning session and one of the things that we quickly realized was that the tribe has not changed over the years, that it still is a movable entity,” Wooten said. “And the properties that we’ve purchased almost mimic what the tribe used to do in the past as far as going places — whether it’s gathering or hunting or fishing where the winter village was or where the summer village was. It’s much the same with the way that we’ve purchased lands throughout our traditional territory.” 

He added, “One of my personal goals is to own a piece of property on every island that we gave up in the Treaty of Point Elliott so that we are reestablished within our whole traditional territory. It feels like it’s slow-going at times, but we are here, we’ve always been here and we’re not going anywhere,” Wooten said. 

Samish’s lands

The Samish Indian Nation owns 42 parcels comprising 200 acres on Fidalgo and Lopez islands, in Anacortes and in Bow; among them:

  • Administration campus on Commercial Avenue in downtown Anacortes
  • Summit Park Campus (Chelángen and historic peservation departments) on Highway 20
  • Cannery Building (finance, planning, health and human services, and human resources) on Seafarers Way in Anacortes
  • Fidalgo Bay Resort in Anacortes
  • Samcor Fuel and Tobacco on Highway 20 near Campbell Lake Road
  • Samish Longhouse Preschool and Child Care Center, on D Avenue in Anacortes 
  • Samish Early Childhood Education Center, under construction on D Avenue and 15th Street in Anacortes 
  • Proposed cultural center and gathering place on Highway 20 at Tibbles Lane 
  • A 14-acre undeveloped commercial site on Highway 20 and Thompson Road in Anacortes
  • Huckleberry Island, which was deeded to the Samish Nation by the State of Washington with the provision that it remain open for public use
  • Agricultural land on Thomas Creek near Bow 
  • Clam beds and uplands on Mud Bay on Lopez Island.

— By Richard Arlin Walker

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