Upper Skagit Tribe

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The Upper Skagit people are descendants of a tribe that inhabited 10 villages on the Upper Skagit and Sauk rivers in western Washington state. The 84-acre Upper Skagit Reservation lies in the uplands of the Skagit River Valley, east of Sedro-Woolley in Skagit County. Another 15 acres of undeveloped commercial land lie along Interstate 5 near Alger.

Flowing more than 125 miles from glaciers in the Canadian Cascade Mountains, through old-growth forests and farmlands to Skagit Bay in the Puget Sound, the Skagit River is western Washington's largest stream. Outside of Canada and Alaska, it is one of the few rivers that sustains all of its original salmon species: Chinook, Chum, Coho, Pink and Sockeye.

The Skagit River Valley was home to a number of Native American tribes known as the Coastal Samish, which comprised two linguistic groups: the Straits, including the Clallam, Lummi, Samish and Semiahmoo tribes; and the Lushootseed, including the Skagit, Snohomish, Snoqualmie, Swinomish and Upper Skagit. The river sustained the culture that inhabited its valley and the tribes flourished, thanks to the bounty of such natural resources as salmon, shellfish, sea mammals, upland game, camus root and cedar trees.

Cedar longhouses lay along the riverbanks from present-day Mount Vernon to Newhalem in northwest Washington, until the dwellers were compelled to resettle onto reservations in the mid-1800s. The Upper Skagit people lived along the Skagit River from Diablo, all the way west to its mouth. Archaeological digs have revealed evidence of human habitation in the Upper Skagit River basin dating to 8,500 years ago.

Extended families or bands lived in the longhouses. Cooking fires were positioned in the middle with ceiling holes directly above. Rafters served as drying racks for smoked salmon.

Skagit River salmon shaped human subsistence patterns. When the salmon run began, fishermen took canoes to fish camps, down to the mouth of the river.

The Skagit River's residents practiced basketweaving for untold generations. Artisans rendered riverbank roots, bark, and bear grass gathered in the forest, into an array of basket types. Some baskets were created for smoked salmon, others for dried meat or berries.

Elders' stories were woven from the river and its surroundings. The stories revealed to the next generation where the best salmon fishing was and where to hunt game in the mountains, how to find sacred ground in the mountains, and where to bathe in the river for healing. Spiritual ceremonies also were held, with smoke and fire as a medium.

Beginning in the 17th century, Spanish, English, and American explorers came into contact with Puget Sound tribes. Many years would pass before the first non-Indian settlers began to trickle into the Skagit Valley in 1846. Like their Native American counterparts, they were attracted to the valley’s plentiful natural resources — especially the fertile soil.

Following conflicts between land-hungry white settlers and Washington Indians in the 1850s, the territory's governor and Indian Agent, Isaac Stevens, drafted several peace treaties. The Point Elliott Treaty, signed on January 22, 1855 by about 80 tribal leaders, including headmen of the Upper Skagit tribe, called for Puget Sound tribes to cede vast tracts of land. In exchange, the tribes were paid a small amount of money and were assured federal health, education and welfare services as well as the prerogative to hunt and fish at their traditional places. In addition, some land was reserved for their use. The government said the Upper Skagit were not one distinct group; they would not be assigned a reservation.

The Point Elliott Treaty signatories and their people were expected to move onto the new Lummi, Swinomish or Tulalip reservations within a year of Congressional ratification, but some tribes resisted, often fiercely. Rather than ensure peace, the treaties touched off an Indian war in eastern Washington when some tribal members refused to relocate.

Following the U.S. government's acquisition of Native American land for settlers, it neglected for decades to fulfill its benefactor role as stipulated in the Point Elliott Treaty and others.

In 1870, Northern Pacific Railroad surveyors traversed Upper Skagit land. Then white settlers arrived in greater numbers. The native people were infuriated when settlers crossed over lands that held the remains of their ancestors. They also suffered from diseases traceable to white contact.

Spiritual activities were prohibited by the government after the treaties of the mid-1850s were signed. Determined to preserve their ancestral religion, the Indians practiced it in secret. In the 1880s, Indian children were prevented from practicing their religion when taken from their families and communities to government-run boarding schools.

Nearly 120 years following the Point Elliott Treaty and other treaties, the state of Washington attempted to regulate tribal fishing, but the tribes resisted on legal grounds: They already had the right to fish (and hunt) in their usual and accustomed places. The treaties had stipulated that the tribes were not giving up that right.

Put in mind of its treaty obligation, the federal government took the state to court. In 1974, U.S. District Judge George H. Boldt ruled that the tribes were entitled to 50 percent of the fish harvests. The tribes then became fishery co-managers with the state.

The 11 bands of Indians that comprised the Upper Skagit Tribe had historically inhabited the land between present-day Mount Vernon and Newhalem in northwest Washington — ceded by treaty, but without land reserved for them. Years without a reservation home caused some Upper Skagits to move to other states.

Three hydroelectric dams were constructed on the Upper Skagit River, now in the North Cascades National Park:

  • Gorge Dam - wood (1923); masonry (1950); high concrete (1960)

  • Diablo Dam - (1927-30)

  • Ross Dam - first stage (1940); second and third stages (1949).
  • The resulting three reservoirs provide power for Seattle City Light. The three dams differ in height: Gorge - 300 feet, Diablo - 389 feet, and Ross - 540 feet. The nature of the river was changed forever.

    In January 1951, the tribe filed a claim with the federal government, stating that the monetary compensation for the lands ceded to the United States was negligently small. In September 1968, a final judgment ordered for the tribe to be awarded $385,471.42.

    The tribe gained formal federal recognition in the early 1970s. A tribal constitution and by-laws were approved by the Secretary of the Interior in 1974. In 1984, the Upper Skagit Tribe acquired a small reservation of federal trust* land east of Sedro-Woolley.

    The tribe's $28 million, Las Vegas style Skagit Valley Casino Resort opened in 1995 at Bow, halfway between Everett and Bellingham. The facility offers the members of the Upper Skagit Tribe an employment alternative to fishing and logging. In March 2001, an $11 million, 103-room hotel and conference center opened at the casino. In addition, the tribe bought into the Semiahmoo Resort on the northern Puget Sound shoreline in Blaine. Owned by the Trillium Corporation, Semiahmoo offers a number of resort activities, including two golf courses.

    Also in March 2001, the tribe received a $90,000 EPA grant to increase funding for the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe EPA General Assistance Program, which is used to reach compliance with tribal, state and federal environmental laws.

    In July 2004, the tribe was slated to receive $1,369,611 from HUD's Indian Housing Block Grant Program to promote affordable housing. The program provides funds for a full range of housing programs to tribes or tribally designated housing agencies.


    *Land owned by the federal government, but maintained by a tribe.
    See Indian Wars Time Table.
    Native American Cultural Regions map.

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