Port Blakely Companies, a family-owned company with timber operations in the U.S. and New Zealand, has returned 2 miles of waterfront and 125 acres of tidelands on Little Skookum Inlet in Mason County to the Squaxin Island Tribe, at no cost.
The return of the tideland property is part of a growing “Land Back” movement, in which landowners are returning property lost by tribes when white settlers arrived and began colonizing the landscapes where Indigenous people had lived and thrived for thousands of years.
The return of the shoreline restores the tribe’s direct access to Puget Sound, and some of the most productive shellfish beds in the region — the very reasons the tribe had made the land and water home.
In a separate transaction, the tribe also reached agreement with Port Blakely to acquire about 875 acres of upland forest in its ancestral lands for an undisclosed sum.
The so-called Kamilche property was acquired by Port Blakely following the signing of the 1854 Medicine Creek Treaty 167 years ago, almost to the day of the announcement of the land transactions.
In the social justice reckoning after the murder of George Floyd, it was obvious giving the shoreline back was the right thing to do, said Mike Warjone, president of Port Blakely, U.S. Forestry.
A mere spoken “land acknowledgment,” recognizing tribal presence and stewardship, is not enough, Warjone said.
“Just an acknowledgment about the place would ring hollow if the only owner of record was still around, and the people it was stolen from were alive and well, and right up the street. The obvious thing to do was simply give it back.
“Frankly I feel a little like, why didn’t we think of this earlier? … It’s about time.”
Kris Peters, chairman of the Squaxin Island Tribe, said the tribe has no plans for development of the property, which will be cherished for ceremonial use.
Peters said the tribe has long had a good relationship with Port Blakely, and the Warjone family that runs the five-generation family business. “They carry themselves with compassion and dignity.”
It is hard to put into words what it feels like to have back land that the tribe never regarded as theirs, or anyone’s, but rather a gift to steward on behalf of future generations, Peters said.
Families lived on these lands collectively, and never overtaxed the resources, he noted, sustained for thousands of years off abundant lands and waters. “For our ancestors, truly these lands, these waters, these animals, these trees, everything was sacred to them, those aren’t just words,” Peters said.
Today’s Squaxin Island tribal members are the descendants of those same maritime families, who lived and prospered along the shores of the southernmost inlets of the Salish Sea for centuries uncounted.
“It is a difficult thing to put into words, when we talk about our connection to the land. People look at it as a cliché, it is not,” Peters said.
Peters said he, and other tribal members, are eager to practice ceremony once more on the sea-swept beach their ancestors knew.
“I can’t wait to drum, and sing, and dance out on those beaches, just like our people did hundreds, and thousands of years ago,” Peters said. “To me it is a very spiritual thing; it fills my heart.”