How a scattered Indian nation kept its songs alive when it couldn’t sing face-to-face


Away from her governance work, Eastwood also has led or participated in many of the virtual cultural sessions. Next to a tabletop in her Anacortes home, she set up a ring light stand, affixed her smart phone to that stand and activated the Teams app, sharing an overhead view of her hands as they created cattail mats and woolen headbands.

Samish citizens who participated in her sessions were shipped boxes of materials (such as dried cattail leaves) to use as they followed Eastwood’s step-by-step instructions from their homes.

Other tribal members have followed her lead. At her home in Seattle, Baker has virtually taught fellow citizens how to use strips of cedar bark to weave a decorative heart and a fish.

And from his place in Anacortes, Wooten has led several remote singing classes, covering “The Bone Game Song” plus Samish flag songs, farewell songs and paddle songs.

Tom Wooten plays his traditional Samish drum.

“The songs go way back – before radios and record players,” Wooten says with a smile. “Tribal citizens are hungry to know the past. To move forward, you have to know where you’ve been.

“That platform allows us to reach folks who definitely wouldn’t have been able to come, not just because of COVID, but because our membership is scattered all over the world,” he adds.

Distance is something Samish people have dealt with for generations.

The first bits of archeological evidence linked to the Samish tribe – serrated bison bones and stone butchering tools –are 14,400 years old, carbon dating showed. They were found on Orcas Island, the largest of the San Juan Islands of the Pacific Northwest.

A heron perched above the shoreline in Anacortes.

Since the last Ice Age, the region has served as the traditional Samish homeland. When white settlers arrived there in the late 1800s, they began destroying a large Samish community house. In the ensuing decades, those settlers drove out scores of Samish people, creating a regional diaspora.

During World War II, some of the Samish people who had remained in Anacortes found better-paying work in the airline industry or in shipyards far away, causing the tribe to further separate.

“What made Samish people unique,” Eastwood says, “was we had to dig in and find out how to survive by following opportunities elsewhere but also stay connected with our scattered families.

“Part of our present-day story is based on the fact that the tribe hadn’t ever been given its own reservation,” she adds.

A Samish story pole stands against the sky and trees in Anacortes.

That far-flung citizenry even earned the Samish a legal nickname – one that Eastwood loves.

In 1994, the U.S. Department of Interior conducted a hearing on federal recognition of the Samish as an Indian tribe. Administrative Law Judge David Torbett conducted the hearing.

At that time – the early days of the internet – tribal leaders already were tech adopters, using cell phones, personal email, and faxes to pull together a dispersed people.

Torbett, who ruled in favor of Samish recognition, recognized their technical savvy. In his opinion, he dubbed the Samish the “Cyber Tribe.”

“It gives me chills, even today,” Eastwood says. “Literally, it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.”

Leslie Eastwood learns traditional beading via Teams.

That same digital familiarity remains intact. The tribe has a thriving website, Facebook, and Instagram pages. Most citizens are comfortable using smart phones and apps, Eastwood says.

Their tech acumen also led Samish leaders to select a communication platform that ensured only tribal citizens could participate in the virtual sessions – particularly when it came to safeguarding the nation’s business information, Wooten says.

The Samish nation is a member of the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center (MS-ISAC), which seeks to improve the overall cybersecurity posture of the nation’s state, local, tribal and territorial governments. The MS-ISAC is part of the nonprofit Center for Internet Security (CIS).

“With the internet the way it is today, we were looking for something that had security,” Wooten says.

“It’s been a benefit for folks to interact and know what’s going on. They’re more informed and our participation has gone up during the pandemic,” he adds. “We’re going to continue to utilize Teams well beyond COVID-19. It has saved us time and money and allowed the government to keep working.”

Samish Indian Nation headquarters in Anacortes.

The recommendation to choose Teams over other platforms came from JR Walters, the Samish nation’s IT director. The selection, Walters says, was rooted in frequent headlines about IT breaches and the tribe’s implementation of CIS security controls, a set of cybersecurity best practices.

But it was one early, virtual meeting that Walters never will forget, he says. It took place around the time that the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic in March. Samish leaders began holding daily Teams calls to discuss the nation’s situational awareness.

After several of those meetings, participants began to get a better feel for Teams functions, including custom and blurred backgrounds.

One morning, a Samish leader entered the remote meeting with a new background: The bridge of the “Enterprise,” the spaceship from the TV series “Star Trek.”

“It added relief to a situation that was feeling super stressful,” Walters says. “At the time, we didn’t know what was happening. Schools were closing. We were talking about what we were going to do as a government.

“Then someone just changes their background, and it brings a little joy,” he adds. “It lightened the mood and it made things better.”

Top photo: Tom Wooten, chairman of the Samish Indian Nation, stands along the shoreline in Anacortes, Washington. 

All photos by Dan DeLong.



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