The original Lummi spoke the Songish dialect of the Salish language, a cultural feature that persists to the present. Their ancient villages bore the evocative names Hutatchl, Lemaltcha, Statshum and Tomwhiksen. For 12,000 years, the Lummi subsisted near the sea and in mountain areas. They returned seasonally to their longhouses situated at scattered locales on 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 wildlife, starchy camas bulbs and sun-dried berries.
The Lummi social structure was family centered and village oriented, marked by complex interrelationships. Leaders earned their status by their wits and demonstrated ability. The Lummi were accomplished artisans in the crafting of boats, seine nets, houses and numerous other artifacts, and they were part a sophisticated regional political network.
The Lummi didn't begin to experience foreign national 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. By the mid-19th century, the Lummi people began to experience the demise of their vibrant social and political structures.
Also around 1850, the 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 be their reservation.
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. By 1909, the Indians on the Lummi reservation, including several smaller bands, numbered altogether only about 435 souls, a decrease by half in four decades.
In 1948 the Lummi Nation adopted a tribal constitution, amended and ratified in 1970, which created the present government structure: a tribal business council.
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.
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, were 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 would continue to be the principal means of livelihood for most of the Lummi. The tribe faced the salmon decline by forming a galvanized front that now plays a salient 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.
See Native American Cultural Regions map .