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Tom Wooten, Chairman, Samish Indian Nation

Reporting by Bellamy Pailthorp
Diane Bernard in Sooke, B.C.
Samish Indian Nation tribal chairman Tom Wooten. | Parker Miles Blohm

The Samish Indian Nation is a local tribe whose culture closely aligns with the Salish Sea. Its headquarters are on Fidalgo Island, near Anacortes, and its people are scattered throughout the area on both sides of the border between the U.S. and Canada.

Historically, the Samish lived on five islands in the central Salish Sea: Fidalgo, Guemes, Lopez, San Juan and Samish.

Due to a clerical error, the Samish tribe lost federal recognition in 1969 and only regained it in 1996. But they have been rebuilding.

“We're slowly, but surely, trying to get more of our land back and be that entity that we were in the past and have a presence on all the islands that we once did,” said Samish tribal chairman Tom Wooten.

A seal surfaces near the beach on Fidalgo Island.
A seal surfaces near the beach on Fidalgo Island. | Parker Miles Blohm

We sit on a beach that the tribe spent nearly a decade restoring. The sand is soft and welcoming. Herons swoop down to feed in the water while we talk and at one point a seal surfaces to look at us. Wooten notes that there was once a historical village on the site.

“I can't tell you exactly, but at least a thousand years ago. And so it was important for the tribe to get this piece of property back, if you will, and take care of it,” he said. “That was one of the reasons why we chose this location to purchase.”

It’s one of several properties his tribe has recently acquired, including nearby Huckleberry Island.

“And we continue to do that,” Wooten said. “I truly believe it mirrors what our ancestors believed when they traveled through the islands.”

He says each island had a special place and meaning, culturally.

Seaweed in Sooke, B.C.
The Samish tribe has spent close to a decade restoring the beach that once contained a historical village. | Parker Miles Blohm

“So you'd go to one place and perhaps fish herring or salmon. You’d go to another place and pick bulbs. You know, and then you have your winter village either on Guemes or on Fidalgo or on Samish Island. And you would Potlatch and have a great time and make babies and whatever else you wanted to do in the winter,” he said.

The Samish are a Coast Salish culture. Wooten says the Salish Sea defines them.

“We're a canoe tribe in culture, and we used canoes for travelling and hunting and fishing, getting from point A to Point B,” he said. “And what better way than on the Salish Sea? It was our highway as well as the food provider, full of fish and shellfish, and our folks still live on that today.”

Yet the Samish tribe’s traditional territory is also where Washington state’s oil refineries are concentrated.

Looking out from the beach at Fidalgo Bay, we see their docks. An oil tanker dominates the view of the water.

Andeavor Refinery
The Andeavor Anacortes Refinery located just outside Anacortes, Wash. | Parker Miles Blohm

“Yep, Tesoro and Shell Oil,” Wooten said. “Both have facilities here. And we can't see them to the north, but up at Cherry Point, there are two more facilities up there as well.”

In addition to his position as tribal chairman, Wooten worked at Shell for years as a shift supervisor. He knows exactly what the tanker is doing.

“That's one of the Polar ships that routinely brings oil down to Cherry Point first. And because this bay is shallower, they have to offload some of their product there and then they come down here to Fidalgo Bay and drop the North Slope oil off at either Tesoro or Shell’s docks,” he said.

Wooten says he believes the oil companies are trying to do the right thing, following ever-tougher regulations as the public demands them. He notes it’s been decades since there was an oil spill and that as long as people are using fossil fuels, we have to find a way to coexist.

He retired from Shell in August, but viewed himself as a kind of witness, working on the inside while he was there, helping hold the company’s feet to the fire.

“That’s how I got to work every day,” Wooten says.

He says that’s what the tribe and the community should do. For example, the Samish have partnered with the City of Anacortes to monitor water quality around Fidalgo Bay. They also take part in regular oil spill safety drills.

Wooten says that spirit of cooperation is another core value of the tribe.

“The only way that we can get things done is working together,” he said. “And the designation of the Salish Sea gives us the opportunity to work with other environmental groups and agencies on this side of the border as well as the other side of the border.”

He adds that it was a big deal for his tribe when the geographic boards of the U.S. and Canada officially recognized the Salish Sea and put it on their maps between 2009 and 2010.

“It allowed us the comfort in knowing that we were part of something that was bigger than just the Samish tribe. And it truly is bigger than just one entity. It’s making a statement that this area is shared, of many people, of many different cultures,” Wooten said.

He says partnerships have enabled a lot of their work, on everything from water quality and ecosystem restoration to creosote cleanup.

Seaweed in Sooke, B.C.

Another big priority is the Samish tribe’s efforts to boost local populations of forage fish.

“Well it's a big circle, right? Without the forage fish you can’t have the salmon. Without the salmon, you can’t have the orcas. Without salmon, you can’t have native people or anybody. That was the prime food source for the people that came before me,” he said. “And without that whole circle being intact there's nothing.”

He says the tribe is paying close attention to the state’s reaction after Cooke Aquaculture’s recent spill of thousands of farmed Atlantic salmon in local waters. They are also keenly focused on the current state of Southern Resident Killer Whales, whose numbers have fallen to a 30-year low.

“We really need to pay attention. We're closely tied to J-pod.” he said, adding that one of the tribe’s most well-known traditional stories is about a beautiful young Samish woman who escaped an abusive marriage by transforming into an orca whale. Some believe this ancestor still ties them to the J-Pod, who they see as their family.

“We're concerned about some of the unexpected deaths in that pod. J-pod is our local killer whale pod,” he said. “And so we're doing what we can to try and make sure that we don't lose any more members of that, because their numbers are really getting depleted.”

At the same time, Wooten says the Samish will continue to work on rebuilding the tribe’s numbers and territories.

“I don’t expect to get everything back that the tribe once had. But I at least want to see a presence on all the islands that the tribe once held,” he said.

He wants the Samish people to be partners and stewards to the Salish Sea and all of its islands, as well as to the communities that they live in.

“At one time we were a powerful tribe within the structure of the Coast Salish people,” he says. “I’d like to see us regain our status. And we’re working toward that.”