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Return To The Salish Sea: Tom Wooten, Chairman, Samish Indian Nation

Samish Indian Nation tribal chairman Tom Wooten.
Parker Miles Blohm
Samish Indian Nation tribal chairman Tom Wooten.

The culture  of the Samish Indian Nation aligns closely 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, they 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,” says Samish tribal chairman Tom Wooten.

We’re sitting on a beach that the tribe spent nearly a decade restoring.

“It's pretty exciting they actually get it done. It's been a long time coming,” Wooten says.

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 says. “That was one of the reasons why we chose this location to purchase.”

It’s one of several properties recently acquired, including an island bought from state parks.

“And we continue to do that,” he says. “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.  

“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 says.

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,” Wooten says. “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.”

To see more photos and read more about the Samish Tribe and its place in the Salish Sea, visit our Return To The Salish Sea website.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to