ORCAS ISLAND, Wash. - The boat slides quietly through Thatcher Pass and past Decatur Island, where red-barked, madrona trees cling to the rocky bluffs.
This, Lena Daniels recalls, was the Samish highway, a watery road that Daniels traveled eight decades ago in a dugout canoe, long before the U.S. government decided her people had ceased to exist as a tribe; long before a federal judge stripped them of treaty fishing rights.
Still sure-footed at 92, Daniels climbs aboard the Paraclete to cruise through the San Juan islands and back to her childhood. She is there to help her tribe, the Samish Nation, recover something taken from them long ago.
Fishing rights sought
Until now, the old Indian woman never thought the stories of her youth mattered to anyone but the members of her tribe. But now, such stories could determine the future of the San Juan islands.
The Samish have filed a lawsuit in federal court to regain their fishing rights. If the tribe prevails, it could use its new-found power to protect the fishery by restricting development in the San Juan archipelago, one of the premier vacation spots in the Northwest.
In preparation of the suit, Daniels joined other Samish elders and leaders on this voyage to turn living history into legal testimony. Because she speaks only Samish and the Indian dialect of her home on the Malahat Reserve north of Victoria, Daniels' son, Randy, translated as she told her stories. The Paraclete motors past Lopez and Shaw to a beach on the northern tip of Orcas Island, the spot where Daniels' grandfather, Boston Tom, made his home. Suddenly, the old lady's face is filled with life.
Daniels is one of several elders whose accounts may become legal testimony of a past still alive among the Samish people.
Her eyes glow as she gazes upon her home place. She dabs the corner of her eye with a handkerchief. Daniels used to live in a house on this beach. But one fall, white islanders found Boston Tom had died while his family was away. They buried his body in the village of Orcas.
When the family returned, the Islanders demanded Boston Tom's beach as payment for the burial. The family has not lived there since.
Ken Hansen, the tribal chairman, watches as the old lady dabs her tears. "When," he asks, "does someone stand up and say the United States made a mistake?"
Daniels was 70 years old in 1974, when U.S. District Judge George Boldt issued his landmark ruling. He said that Puget Sound tribes whose ancestors had signed treaties with the United States were entitled to half the salmon catch.
Then, Boldt had to decide which modern tribes were entitled to those treaty rights. He was supposed to make that decision in 1976, but became ill. Three years later, on Boldt's last day as a judge, he signed an order that stripped the Samish and four other tribes of their treaty rights. Although the Samish had signed a treaty 125 years earlier, Boldt found that they no longer existed as a tribe.
A 'tortured history'
The tribe went through 16 years of legal limbo. Then, in 1995, a federal judge in Seattle overturned Boldt's ruling and decided that the Samish deserved to be recognized as a tribe. The judge called the tribe's quest for recognition "a protracted and tortured history made more difficult by excessive delays and governmental misconduct."
Treaty rights would greatly increase the Samish tribe's legal standing to influence land use and environmental policies in the San Juans and surrounding waters.
The Samish, who have been sustained in their years of legal limbo by a fierce determination to assert their rights as a sovereign people, have resolved to preserve the fishery and the unique character of the San Juans that has made it a tourism magnet.
"Today, as I travel through my beloved islands, I have fear for the pressures that threaten the sanctity of our homeland," said tribal chairman Hansen.