The Swinomish Tribe is known for its proactive work on issues related to sovereignty and the environment.
Swinomish’s police department is the first in Washington State – and the second in the U.S. – to be state-accredited, giving it the same authority under state law as other law enforcement agencies.
After the Washington legislature didn’t pass a law that would have allowed dental health therapists – similar to nurse practitioners – to provide basic dental care, Swinomish initiated its own program to train and employ dental health therapists to improve the availability of dental care on the reservation.
Swinomish launched an initiative to assess the potential impacts of climate change on its lands and to identify appropriate responses and actions. With the U.S. Geological Survey, Swinomish initiated a program to outfit canoes in the Canoe Journey with probes that collect information about water quality in the Salish Sea.
But Swinomish citizens say there are many other things you should know about their Coast Salish nation. Like how they care for their elders and young ones. How they ensure Swinomish culture and history are part of daily life. How a new generation of leaders are rising up through the Canoe Journey, canoe racing, powwows, and youth leadership programs. And how, once you’re family, you’re locked in a never-ending embrace.
Some background: Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby’s great-great-grandfather, Kel-Kahl-Tsoot, was one of the 82 Coast Salish leaders who signed the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855, making a broad swath of land west of the Cascades to the Salish Sea available for non-Native settlers. Those signers also reserved land for their peoples, as well as fishing and harvesting rights in their traditional territories.
The Swinomish reservation (7,000 acres, with another 3,000 acres of tidelands) became home to the Swinomish, Kikiallus, Lower Skagit and Samish peoples. Swinomish has a citizenry of about 900.
In this article – part of an ICTMN series on Native Nations – some elders, culture bearers and educators share 10 Things You Should Know About the Swinomish Tribe.
People of the Water, People of the Salmon: The very name “Swinomish” tells of The People’s connection to the water and the salmon that are central to their culture. According to Shelly Vendiola, Swinomish, instructor at Northwest Indian College’s Coast Salish Institute:
“‘mish’ is ‘the people,’ and we are all people by the water. ‘swadabs’ – Swinomish – is ‘salmon people,’ so there’s a connection there. To me, that means we respect and take care of that which gives us strength and sustenance. Things from the water, like the salmon, it feeds our spirit and it’s who we are. So, water is sacred, and salmon is medicine.
“The other medicine is cedar,” she said. “So, there’s two things that give us strength and sustenance, because it’s medicine. Many things are made from the cedar. Like our smokehouse, our big houses, and our canoes.”
Building a strong, diverse economy: The Swinomish Tribe has built a diverse economy that includes lodging, entertainment, golf, and – true to tradition – salmon.
The Swinomish Casino & Lodge, overlooking Padilla Bay, features an upscale restaurant, a café, a sports bar and a deli, and is a showcase of Coast Salish art.
The Swinomish RV Park is located adjacent to the casino and lodge, and overlooks Swinomish Channel and Padilla Bay, with views of Mount Baker and the Cascade Mountains.
Nearby, the Swinomish Golf Links is an 18-hole, par 72 course with views of Mount Baker and Fidalgo Bay.
The Swinomish Fish Company processes and cans salmon which is marketed worldwide under the “Native Catch” label. It also processes other fish and Dungeness crab harvested primarily in Puget Sound.
Swinomish also owns two Chevron stations and convenience stores – one on Highway 20, and one in Swinomish Village.
All told, Swinomish employs 850 people – 500 work for Swinomish Tribe-owned enterprises, 350 work for the Tribe, according to Vice Chairman Brian Porter, who is also Swinomish’s TERO director.
Opening doors for students: Swinomish’s economic enterprises help fund college scholarships for every high school graduate. “Our youth have so many opportunities in front of them. This is what our elders prayed for,” Cladoosby told the National Museum of the American Indian.
“We give full-ride scholarships to the school of your choice if you graduate from high school or get a GED. We believe that the way to defeat poverty and drug and alcohol abuse is through education.” But, he added, “Our youth and their parents have to want to make the choice for education.”
Swinomish awarded 443 scholarships between 2008-15, according to programs administrator John Stephens.
”We have been providing scholarships for many years before 2008,” he said. “Keep in mind that we provide scholarships on an annual basis to individual Swinomish-enrolled members, with annual renewals available providing they are students in good standing, so these numbers represent the number of individual awards for each year. The numbers can be duplicative as an individual member can get a scholarship each of four years for undergrad, each of two years for master’s, plus years for a PhD. The numbers also represent individuals who are in a vocational or technical program at a community college.”
“We put our elders and youth first”: “In our Swinomish Tribe, our elders are a huge priority in our community. We like to put them first, like the youth,” said Asiah Gonzalez, 17, shortly after she was crowned Miss Swinomish at the Swinomish Days Powwow. “We like to make that journey through our culture … Our culture is something to turn to, to look to and appreciate.”
Family ties cannot be broken: Carneen “Connie” Allen, a Swinomish elder and grandmother, came home to the Swinomish reservation some 50 years after her mother left as part of the federal government’s urban relocation program.
“When we came home, there was a Canoe Journey and it was really awesome,” Allen said. “For people from the outside, like us, it was kind of like an awakening, like we were waking up to our culture, because we didn’t know much. I never knew where my mother was from except Washington, and we brought her [family] home.”
After a Swinomish relative found Allen, who was born in Oregon and raised in California, via the Internet, Allen connected with an aunt on the reservation. “She said, ‘I remember you. I visited with your mom when we went out to Yamhill, Oregon, to a farm where you were living,’ ” Allen recalled. “And that’s how I knew we had found our family for sure.”
Allen and two of her adult children have returned to the reservation. “It’s wonderful to be home,” she said.
Porter was raised in Bremerton, Everett and Marysville – his father was a shipyard welder – and the family didn’t return to Swinomish until Porter was in fifth grade. But his grandparents made sure they didn’t get disconnected from their culture.
“I’ve always had it, even when we didn’t live here,” he said of the culture. “We always knew our relatives, we always knew our grandparents. They made sure my parents came home.”
Power and strength in unity: “There’s a lot of power and strength in bringing the people together,” Vendiola said during the Swinomish Days Powwow. “Here, for example, where we are at today, an intertribal social gathering … everyone from all the nations is welcome to come and enter that circle of life here …
“The other thing about that, raising knowledge and bringing people together – we hosted the Canoe Journey in 2011, and we’ve been hosting since then as one of the host tribes when the Journey comes from the north to the south. We always try to be mindful that there’s a lot of power and strength in bringing the people together, because when you’re a collective, and you share that way, that’s where the sacredness is.”
“We take pride in our hospitality”: The term “Loving, Caring and Sharing,” adopted as Swinomish’s motto during the 2011 Canoe Journey, is derived from a teaching of the late Chester Cayou, a Swinomish political leader and culture-bearer. Cayou often told young people that that’s how their ancestors lived – they loved others, cared for others, and shared with others.
Porter, Cayou’s grandson, said “Loving, Caring and Sharing” was a part of his family’s daily life. Whenever his grandparents had visitors, the first thing his grandmother always asked was, “Did you eat? Are you hungry?”
“We were taught to care for people, especially those who come to visit, those who come to stay with us,” he said. “We take pride in our hospitality. We take that for granted, but that’s us, that’s who we are.”
“Expectations in our culture are high”: Porter remembered when an aunt asked him to talk at a gathering for someone who had passed on, and he told her no – he didn’t feel that he was ready. His aunt’s response: “I’m not asking you.”
What he didn’t realize at the time was that even though he thought he wasn’t ready, his aunt believed he was and that’s why she asked him.
“The expectations in our culture are high,” Porter said. “You see people get into the canoe and steer, or get on the floor and talk. When the elders think you’re ready, you’re ready. It’s an honor that they ask you to do that,” he said.
Teaching endurance and respect: Being part of a culture that is tied to the sea and all of its unpredictability presents challenges that build endurance and respect.
“A lot of my teachings come from the canoe,” Gonzales said. “What [I’ve learned] most about being out on the water is patience. It’s true what they say – good things come to those who wait. Not everything is going to be handed to you. The water can be calm one minute and turn on you the next. You just have to be prepared.” Just like in life, she said. “You don’t know what’s coming your way. Just be prepared.”
Vendiola added, “What I was taught [is] you have to be in balance mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually when in the canoe. Because if one person [in the canoe] is out of balance, the whole canoe is out of balance.”
Porter remembers fishing with his family. Sometimes, there’d be no fish and the family would struggle to get by. “But we were humbled by the experience. It made us appreciate everything we had,” he said. “My grandparents taught us how to gather, to live off the land, things we could do to take care of ourselves.”
Porter said the experience of fishing with his grandfather – preparing in advance, getting up early (“no excuses,” he said) — gave him the stamina to go and go and go. “Now I’m teaching my kids. They’re understanding their way of life.”
Notable Swinomish: Craig A. Bill has served as director of the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs since 2005. He was formerly the director of intergovernmental affairs for the Lummi Nation, and adviser to Lummi’s chairman.
Chester Cayou (1922-2010) was a Swinomish political leader and culture bearer. As an Army soldier in World War II, he saw action at Normandy and in the Battle of the Bulge, and served for six months in the occupation of Berlin after the war ended. As a member of the Swinomish Senate for 27 years, he fought to protect fishing rights and was an advocate for smart economic development.
Brian Cladoosby is chairman of the Swinomish Tribe and president of the National Congress of American Indians.
Lorraine Loomis is chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, and director of fisheries for the Swinomish Tribe.
Hereditary chief Martin Sampson (1888-1980) was a World War I Army veteran, a Skagit County civic leader, three-term president of the Northwest Federation of American Indians, and author of “Indians of Skagit County.”
Susan Edwards-Wilbur (1954-2004) was the first Native American elected to the La Conner School Board. The Susan Edwards-Wilbur Early Childhood Education Center at Swinomish is named in her honor.
Matika Wilbur is a noted photographer and social documentarian. In her Project 562, she is photographing people from every federally recognized Native Nation in the United States. Her goal: To change the way people view Native Americans and help them see the diversity of Indian country. The result will be a photographic exhibit, with audio from her interviews with her subjects, and a book.