January 7, 2007

What can you tell me about the Lummi Indians from the San Juan Island (WA) area?


I’m currently doing some research on the Lummi Indians within the San Juan Island (WA) area. I’d appreciate learning about their general customs, health rituals/medicines & their symbols. Thanx for responding at your earliest convenience.

–Submitted by Deb L..


The Lummi Indians are the principal tribe of more than twenty small Salishan tribes originally living on the lower shores, islands, and eastern side of Puget Sound in Washington State. They call themselves the Nuglummi, which means “the People”, or Lhaq’temish, which translates to People of the Sea. While the shorter version “Lummi” used today is usually pronounced with a short u, the longer Nuglummi is pronounced with a long u.

Lummi Indians were the first settlers on San Juan Island, with encampments along the north end of the island. North-end beaches were especially busy during the annual salmon migration, when hundreds of tribal members would gather along the shoreline to fish, cook, and exchange news.

The original Lummi spoke the Songish dialect of the Salish language. Their language is the same as that spoken, with dialectic variations, by the Samish and Klalam to the south, the Semiamu on the north, in British Columbia, and the Songish, Sanetch, and Sooke of Vancouver Island, B. C. The Salish language is still spoken by many people today.

For 12,000 years, the Lummi subsisted near the Pacific Ocean and in nearby mountain regions. They returned seasonally to their longhouses situated at scattered locations on territory that is included in the present reservation in today’s western Whatcom County and the San Juan Islands of Washington State.

Their protein-rich diet consisted principally of salmon, followed by trout, shellfish, elk, deer, other small wildlife, starchy camas bulbs and sun-dried berries. Most of their meat and seafood were smoke dried for preservation. They used carefully calibrated burning to prepare fields where they cultivated camas, tiger lilies, onions, and other edible plants.

Like most Northwest Coast peoples, they lived in winter villages of large cedar plank longhouses, dispersing in the warmer months to fish, hunt, and maintain and harvest shellfish beds and upland gardens.

They weaved wool blankets from dog and goat hair. Baskets were woven from cedar bark, limbs, and roots; wild cherry bark, rye grass, bear grass, and nettle fibers. They designed the commonly used fishing methods of the reef net, the weir, and the purse seine. They expressed their language and religious traditions through elaborate carvings on totems and ceremonies.

The Lummi medicine chest included Yarrow flowers boiled into a tea to relieve body aches and sinus congestion, buds of cedar chewed and swallowed for sore lungs, and to treat toothaches, and the whole lady fern plant was used for medicines and dye. The Lummi make a tea from current twigs that is a pain killer. These are just a few of the hundreds of natural medicines they used in the past, and continue to use.

If the Lummi people had a church, it would be the ancient cedar, hemlock, and Douglas fir forest of Arlecho Creek near Mt. Baker, Washington. Members of seyown, the Lummi Spirit Dancing Society, have worshiped here for millennia, fasting, taking purifying dips in the ice-cold creek, and bringing back special songs to sing for the rest of their lives. Over the years, much of the surrounding forest has been clearcut, leaving 672 acres of unprotected old growth. Should that remainder be cut as well, the Lummi believe that their songs would no longer be valid because they would lose their connection to specific animals of the forest.

According to one Lummi ancient prophesy, “When the trees are gone the sky will fall and we and the salmon will be no more.”

After decades of struggle, the destruction of Arlecho Creek ended with the sale of the 2,265-acre basin to the Lummi Nation.

The Lummi social structure was family centered and village oriented, marked by complex interrelationships. Leaders earned their status by their wits and demonstrated ability. Marriages were often arranged to facilitate trade relationships. The Lummi were accomplished artisans in the crafting of boats, seine nets, houses and numerous other artifacts, and they were part of a sophisticated regional political network.

The Lummi believe an unborn Lummi Indian hears what his future relatives are saying and knows what they are thinking; if they have evil thoughts in their mind he leaves them before his birth.

Probably the best known Lummi symbols are used in their totem poles and cedar masks. The Lummi people include many master carvers. Representations of raven, frog, eagle, and salmon are most often seen in Lummi carvings. The murrelet, an endangered sea bird, is a symbol of fortune. In carvings, it means the “totem of the pot-latch” or the gathering of people. Bears carved into a totempole represent courage and strength. Wexes is the Lummi word for frog, a totem of metamorphosis. It’s a symbol of coming into one’s own creative power.

The Lummi didn’t begin to experience European influences until about 1800. Then the Lummi Nation traded for half a century with Russians, Spaniards, Japanese and Englishmen prior to contact with traders from the United States. By 1850, the Americans took up where the others left off. Like their predecessors, the United States traders didn’t desire what the Lummi economy produced; rather, they aggressively wanted their raw materials and land.

Many of the Lummi tribe were killed by smallpox and other imported diseases in the 18th and 19th centuries. Smallpox Bay was where tribal members plunged into the icy water to cool the fevers that came with the disease. In the forty years after trade began with white men, their population was reduced by half. Today, the Lummi people consist of over 3,500 enrolled tribal members, up from 435 in 1909.

By the mid-19th century, the Lummi people began to experience the demise of their vibrant social and political structures. Also around 1850, many Lummi were converted to Christianity through the efforts of the Roman Catholic Casimir Chirouse and later Oblate fathers. A mission was established on what would later be their reservation.

In the first years after San Juan County was formed, most settlers were Euro-American men who were either already married to Indian women or else married women from local Northern Straits Salish communities. Many island families were descended from these Indian-white marriages.

As more white families settled in the islands in the late 1800s, prejudice developed against “half-breed” families. Often the children and grandchildren of Indian women downplayed their heritage to be accepted in “white” society.

Others identified more with their mothers’ families, some moving to the Lummi, Swinomish, and other reservations that harbored the islands’ remaining Salish communities. No reservations were established within San Juan County, and as settlement increased those communities lost access to reef netting locations, oyster beds, camas fields, homes, and sacred sites that had been theirs for centuries.

In 1855, the Lummi Nation signed the Treaty of Point Elliot with the U.S., which called for the natives to relinquish much of their homeland in western Washington Territory. In return they were assigned land reserved for them that initially consisted of 15,000 acres. The reservation also was intended for the Nooksacks, Samishes and other local natives, but was primarily inhabited by Lummis. Today, approximately 12,000 acres remain in Indian control.

In 1948 the Lummi Nation adopted a tribal constitution, amended and ratified in 1970, which created the present government structure, which is an 11 member tribal business council elected by tribal members.

That year, the council filed a claim with the Indian Claims Commission for additional money from the United States, arguing that the amount granted to them in the 1855 treaty was too low. The commission argued that $52,067 was a fair market value in 1859 and would not allow an additional amount, so the tribe appealed. In 1972 the U.S. Court of Claims ruled that the commission had placed the bare minimum fair market value on the land in 1859. The court reversed that decision and set a fair value of $90,634.13. On Oct. 22, 1972, the tribe was awarded the difference in the amount of $57,000.

The Lummi Reservation is seven miles northwest of Bellingham, Washington, in the western portion of Whatcom County 95 miles north of Seattle. The reservation is a five mile long peninsula which forms Lummi Bay on the west, Bellingham Bay on the east, with a smaller peninsula of Sandy Point, Portage Island and the associated tidelands.

For thousands of years, the Lummi and other tribes had fished without adversely affecting the salmon runs. Beginning with the white man’s arrival, however, the salmon population went into sharp decline. Overfishing, the compromise of salmon streams by logging practices, farming, and the proliferation of cities, are to blame. In addition, dams intersected large sections of rivers where salmon once propagated.

The Lummi and 19 other treaty tribes also suffered under a century of policy and practice by the dominant society that excluded them from the commercial salmon fishery of western Washington. However, in 1974, U.S. Federal District Court judge George Boldt handed down a decision that defined Indian fishing rights and guaranteed treaty Indians 50 percent of the allowable salmon harvest.

Fishing and the gathering of shellfish continues to be the principal means of livelihood for most Lummi. The tribe faced the salmon decline by forming a galvanized front that now plays a major role in maintaining the region’s fish stocks and responsibly managing the threatened salmon resource.

Part of that effort is represented by their reservation salmon hatchery. The Lummi also have the largest Native American fishing fleet in the Pacific Northwest.

One of their most important cultural ceremonies is the First Salmon Ceremony. Others are the Ancestral Mask Dance, and the Lummi Blanket Dance.

Related links on this site:

Northwest Indian Symbols and their meanings

Totem carvings tell a story, revealed only if one knows the meaning assigned to various animals, fish, birds and designs and where they are placed. Here are the meanings of some common northwest indian symbols.

Symbol of Fortune

The old-growth forest in Arlecho Creek is special to the Lummi tribe. It is a place of spiritual worship and a place to interact with Mother Nature.

External links:

Official website of the Lummi Nation

Potlatch Economics

An explanation by Lummi Chairman Larry Kinley explaining how the Lummi economy completely broke down once trading began with Europeans and early Americans.

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