Word by word, the instructor shares the Samish language terms needed to express ancestral lineage.

Sná7, name. Tan, mother. Man, father. Síla7, grandparent. Ts’ómeqw, great-grandparent.

Put together, “this is my grandmother” would be nilh ne-síla7 siyá.

The March, online ancestral lineage language training was just one of many classes the Samish Indian Nation is now providing for its tribal citizens through virtual learning. Since the pandemic began last spring, the Anacortes-based tribe realized that COVID-19 was going to be here for the long haul and its previous approach of in-person cultural classes would have to shift.

Last summer, Samish leaders said after successfully holding their tribal business meetings virtually, they decided to try moving their cultural program online as well.

The Samish cultural programs, called “Chelángen,” preserve the traditions, culture and language of the Samish people. Samish General Manager Leslie Eastwood said chelángen is a rich, multidimensional word in the Samish language. “It refers to our history, it refers to all of our traditional teachings. It refers to the body of ancestors that we inherit all that knowledge from,” Eastwood said.

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(Samish Language Program Manager Kelly Hall demonstrates Samish language ancestral lineage below.)

In addition to the ancestral lineage language class, the tribe also offers a host of other classes for Samish citizens. There is a popular Samish history class taught by the tribal chairman, beading classes, drum-making classes, traditional medicine, blanket making, cedar harvesting, a “chat and craft” time where people can work on their own projects but together virtually, and many others.

The tribe’s efforts online were recognized in February with a Tribal Innovation Award by Laserfiche, awarded to its information technology director J.R. Walters.

Samish Indian Nation Tribal Chairman Tom Wooten said the passage of tribal elders and the subsequent loss of tribal knowledge increased the urgency for him to find a solution to the social distancing problem.

Tom Wooten,  Samish Indian Nation chairman. (Samish Indian Nation)
Tom Wooten, Samish Indian Nation chairman. (Samish Indian Nation)

“One of the things that I felt important was sharing the tribe’s history with the citizens because Grandma and Grandpa and your aunties and uncles may not be there anymore to tell you the stories that you need to have to put the pieces together to know how you connect,” Wooten said. “And so that’s kind of how I view this is, as an elder myself, I have a responsibility to share this information and thankfully through this media, I’m able to do that.”

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Since moving their Chelángen classes online, tribal leaders have found the shift to be a “blessing in disguise” in some ways.

Samish citizens are widely dispersed geographically. While many live in the tribe’s traditional territories of the western San Juan Islands and nearby, Eastwood said the bulk of Samish people live in King County with many others across the country and beyond.

The online classes have brought Samish citizens together, with everyone able to attend using their computer and internet — from anywhere in the world. In their online classes some citizens have attended from Ontario, Canada, and Barrow, Alaska, in the Arctic Circle. 

“If there’s a silver lining in COVID-19, this is it for us. To be able to connect with those folks that we haven’t been able to connect with ever before,” Wooten said. 

Like many Native American tribes, the Samish are no strangers to diseases and hardship. 

“This COVID-19 is not the first pandemic that our nation has been through,” Wooten said. “Smallpox, measles, all those things came through with European contact and settlement, and it was devastating to our population.”

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According to the tribe, the Samish had thousands of members in 1847, but 12 years later, the tribe numbered in the hundreds.

The Samish experience mirrored that of Indigenous people throughout the Americas. A 2019 study by University College London found that colonization of the Americas killed 90% of Indigenous people

Yet, Wooten said, the Samish people are nothing if not adaptive. “Probably our biggest [asset] is perseverance. We’ve had some really bad things happen to us over the centuries.” But, he said, “we’ll be here for time immemorial.”

Through Chelángen, the tribe is fulfilling a core promise and principle, Eastwood said. 

“I would just go back to a teaching that we have and hold pretty dear to heart,” Eastwood said. “That we were thought of seven generations ago — those of us that are running things and making decisions now — we were a spark in the heart and the imagination of ancestors going back seven generations.

“And we have a similar responsibility to be thinking seven generations forward. … I think we have this big responsibility to [make sure we] keep it going. That we make sure important traditions and teachings live on and extend.”