Dinner on the Reservation

Monday night, when I went to dinner on the Lummi Reservation, what I saw was the legacy of my forefathers.

The Lummi tribal leaders invited all Lummi Islanders to come across the water to a salmon dinner, in the hospitality tradition of the indigenous people who have inhabited this coastal land for thousands of years.

They wanted to tell us their side of the ferry problem.

They say they want the Whatcom Chief, our ferry, to go somewhere else because they don’t like ferry traffic on the reservation and they want to build a marina where the ferry dock now exists.

Jerry and I went over on the 6:10 ferry. A shuttle service had been organized from the Gooseberry Point ferry dock to the Wes li em Lummi Community Center, the place where the Lummi people have celebrations and funerals. I had not been there before and I was impressed with its size and the simple elegance of the interior, The great main hall is supported by huge hewn logs adorned with a few traditional carvings.

Lummi Community Center

Lummi Community Center

There were a many of us islanders (about 200) and only a few Lummi tribal members.

Guests at the Lummi dinner

Guests at the Lummi dinner

I immediately struck up a conversation with a well dressed woman who appeared to be native. She told me she wasn’t from the Lummi tribe but was a consultant to the Lummis from the Tulalip tribe whose reservation is further south near Seattle. It’s casino is big and elegant with elaborate native theme sculptures and many fountains. Later I talked to Cliff Cultee, the Chairman of the Lummi Indian Business Council which seems to be the principal policy making body of the tribe. He told me he is a busy man, on call 24/7.

I saw lots of friends, some I see frequently, some I haven’t seen all winter. We sat with Mark Marshall (he and his wife Lis do a bed and breakfast) and Sam Giffin and his girlfriend (they go to college). Sam and friend make movies and videos. We talked about that for a while. Then the conversation turned to chickens where it stayed for the rest of the dinner.

After dinner we had a power point presentation by Richard Jefferson, one of the tribal leaders. We found seats near Tammy, my neighbor, and her partner, John. More chicken news. She said her 5 old chickens are fighting with her 6 newly acquired chickens. No fatalities as yet.

Richard Jefferson is a good looking middle aged man, slim and dark with graying hair and a resonant voice. The consensus of islanders afterward was that his presentation was rambling and ineffective. He stressed that the main concern of the tribe is safety. They worry about their children walking to school or playing near the road where traffic speeds to the ferry. His tone became urgent and emotional. If we don’t get this right, he said, our children’s children will ask, what were they thinking when they made this deal?

He left the impression that if we can solve the safety issue we are there. The county, he said, has not been forthcoming, but they are doing better. The Indians wanted expensive solutions, but it seems they will accept less expensive ones. He said much progress has been made on this point. In fact, he said, the safety problem is just about solved.

So are we done?

Well, no. It seems that safety isn’t the only issue after all. They’d like the county to pay part of the cost of the marina they want to build at the ferry dock.

Richard congratulated himself on his success in getting federal money for reservation projects. But he said it is much easier to get when you have a partner and are asking for matching funds. The county needs to offer seed money.

Waiting for the ferry in the cold wind

Waiting for the ferry in the cold wind

Looking back at history, I ask myself what my forefathers were thinking when they made this deal with the conquered peoples of our country.

The white people (my ancestors) who settled this land wanted it all for themselves; the indigenous population, whom they called Indians, were an impediment to that end and a nuisance. My ancestors tried to kill the Indians; besides shooting them, missionaries (men of God) handed out blankets deliberately infected with small pox and measles. Still some Indians survived. So they made “treaties” with them. In 1855 the Point Elliot Treaty was signed with the Lummi tribe and they were forced onto a peninsula reservation that covers about 20 square miles. In those days there was so much land it seemed that if they confined the Indians to this out of the way place they could forget about them.

My ancestors called the reservations “sovereign nations” and made them “self governing.”  They would have their own laws, which could be different from those of the rest of the country. On the “sovereign nation” Lummi Reservation it was a crime for the people to speak their own language and whites systematically attempted to destroy the native culture and traditional practices. In Canada the potlatch and dancing were criminalized.

As time passed the courts began to insist that at least some provisions of the “treaties” were adhered to. There is a legal maze surrounding the world of the reservations that could take a life time to untangle.

Here’s what the situation looks like today to a non-expert like me. Some things are permitted on reservation that are not allowed elsewhere in the State: there is a casino, while outside the reservation gambling is not permitted — except, of course, for the State sponsored lottery. The sale of fireworks (illegal elsewhere) is permitted and there are many small fireworks stands all year round. Around July 4th additional temporary stands spring up. Cigarettes are sold with less tax (but not no tax). Tribal members have special privileges about fishing and hunting.

There are reservation police and reservation courts but serious crimes are dealt with elsewhere. The whole thing has to be regulated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a department of the Federal Government. Tribal members have government provided medical care and various other kinds of governmental support. The Northwest Indian College is located on the Lummi reservation.

Income on the reservation comes from the casino (The Silver Reef Casino), the Indian College, the tribal bureaucracy, fishing and a few small businesses. The tribe, like other tribes, survives by getting Federal Government grants to fund various projects.  Almost everything the tribe wants or needs to do requires public money. And they often get quite a lot of it.

Probably the richest of the native American people are the Alaskan natives. Alaskan Native Corporations are major players in the Alaskan economy. In Alaska there are designated Native Villages rather than reservations. On the other hand, there are some reservations in the lower 48 where children are starving. On most reservations poverty, drugs, drunkenness and violence against women are ongoing problems.

I think it’s a system that encourages dependency and ghettoizes Native Americans. Of course, people are perfectly free to leave the reservations if they wish to, and many do, but there are incentives to stay. It is often (not always) the place where they grew up. They often have family there. There is free medical care, and there is the possibility of income from tribal enterprises.

Who is actually a native? Many generations have passed since the reservations were set up. There has been intermarriage and intermingling. One of my daughters-in-law had a great grandmother who was 100% Cherokee Indian. Somewhere in my son‘s father‘s past Pocahontas was supposed to have been an ancestor. Genes being what they are, my little granddaughter, Jameson, has a native American look. People have asked Katie, her mother, about Jameson’s “ethnicity.”



Like so many situations in the world, what should have been is irrelevant to present reality. The reservations are here and are not going away. They should become self sustaining and prosperous. It would be an improvement if they could develop enterprises other than gambling and explosives. I think that for the Lummis a marina would be a good thing. It would help their fishing industry and encourage tourism. There is talk of a restaurant at the marina which could feature local seafood. The ferry docking at the marina would bring customers for a restaurant and buyers for local seafood and crafts.

The ferry cabin

The ferry cabin

The best thing to come from our dinner at the Lummi reservation was the suggestion, made by Richard Jefferson, that we have such a gathering once a year. That drew the only applause of the evening. I think we on the island should reciprocate. We are such close neighbors, separated by less than a mile of water, but by a deep historical chasm of misunderstanding. If we came to know each other better I’m sure we could be friends.

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13 Responses to Dinner on the Reservation

  1. wisewebwoman says:

    You captured the evening well, Anne. I like your idea of an annual get together to open up the lines of communication more.
    The hall is stunning!

  2. It felt like I was there! Small communities everywhere have certain things in common, and often chickens are involved! You have to take history into account when trying to understand people’s attitudes, but I agree that to move forward you have to look forward…

  3. Tabor says:

    I think in most cases progress is inevitable…the key is to controlling it. The Indians seems to be smart in approaching it as a discussion among all involved. I wish our Congress was this intelligent.

  4. Pauline says:

    To recognize the legacy of our forefathers and try to come to some understanding of it, coupled with a desire to make things better than they are is a good first step. It will be interesting to see what develops…

  5. Marja-Leena says:

    Interesting story, a gorgeous hall, and what a great idea for a community get together, like a potlatch without the music and gifts. So much of the history of killings and reservations is the same here in Canada. It seems to me now that when the politicians and corporations (mining, forestry etc.) get mixed up in the picture that hackles rise on all sides. I hope the annual thing continues and life improves for all concerned on Lummi Island and reservation.

  6. Betty says:

    Jameson is gorgeous and looks to have a wonderful nature. Inherited?
    Good luck selling your paintings. Won’t you let us see them? Oh your poor Daisy! Matted blood on her coat! One night a month or so ago I suspected Jos was having a seizure but decided it was just a nightmare. Maybe I was wrong? I will not have blood taken from her jugular – I stopped taking my lipitor because it may be affecting my memory and nobody will take blood from my jugular if I am conscious. Or hers. I assume she thinks like I do. Quality before Quanity. If not she better speak up!
    Can’t help you re Heloise – I don’t understand anything about cats. They are so strange – the way they sit and look at you.
    I think we Canadians were even worse to our Indians. Sent them off to Church run schools were many were sexually abused and they weren’t allowed to speak English. I believe we keep them on the Reservations by paying them monthly welfare cheques as long as they stay there. I live on Georgian Bay and often “see” them riding the waves in their big canoes. They helped our pioneers so much.
    Thanks for your posts – it is great reading you.

  7. Cathy says:

    Anne, I really like your summary of the dinner, pictures and conclusions too. Thanks for taking the time to put it together. Since we didn’t attend it has been nice to see your recap.

  8. Hattie says:

    Let’s face it: we’re all on the dole. Sustainability is a joke. We might as well settle down and learn to get along better with each other.
    Pull federal money from this island and we would all starve to death.

  9. annie says:

    A difficult situation. We (the white people) basically screwed up a long time ago, so how is it made right, or can it ever be?

  10. Dick says:

    What a fascinating account, bringing across the dilemmas of interrelations between Native Americans and the descendants of settlers today. So many scars to heal.

  11. Rain says:

    It’s a tough situation and I suppose whether it can end up helpful to both sides will depend on whether that county is in as much financial trouble as so many other places. If they don’t have the money for helping pay for the marina, it’s the islanders who will suffer the most.

    My husband is involved with start-up companies and hears quite a lot about the grant money the tribes had been getting, but my question is what about now, with the federal government in trouble, how much of that will still be available for such projects? It’s too bad more billionaires don’t form an interest in investing in humanitarian projects instead of just feathering their own nests. It seems they are the ones with a lot of spare cash right now.

  12. Rain says:

    Incidentally I don’t buy the concern for traffic and their children, being why they are trying to block the ferry, not if they are wanting to increase the traffic with a marina that would draw in more fast traffic. Oregon has several casinos now and the highways on the way there have high accident rates.

  13. Colleen Berg says:

    Nice job Ann. This should not be an “us and them” issue. The tribal history and current poverty and social issues are something most of us don’t comprehend. Besides, making the road safer is better for everyone. And on the other hand–you’re right–if many on the island can not afford the continued rising fares, families like mine will be forced to leave…and Lummi Island will become the playground for the wealthy. This is a very difficult path we are on. Thank you for the pictures…fun to see the community smiling after a somber evening.

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