For the Lummi people, the restriction of cultural and emotional range, and even physical confinement, is all too familiar.
Beginning in the 1860s, in the U.S. and Canada, the children of the Lummi and other native people were taken from their families and sent to government-run boarding schools. Not true schools at all, these were re-education camps meant to “kill the Indian to save the man,” as the saying went at the time. Removed to places far from their families, the children’s hair was cut, their clothes were burned, and their names were changed. They were forbidden to speak their native language and punished if they did. Many were abused physically and sexually. Many died.
“We understand what happened to her,” Bill James, hereditary chief of the Lummi Nation says of Lolita. “We can relate to her captivity because of the things that happened to our people. Our young people were taken away from us. Our families’ cultural values were taken away from us, just as hers were taken away. That’s how I relate to her, with her captivity and the government schools taking away our children and the trauma, taking away our history, our language, our culture, the breaking up of our families.”
“I can feel her heart. I can feel her lonesomeness. And how it is to be taken away from home and family. Because I have heard all the stories of our ancestors of being taken away, the boarding schools. And I know what happened to them, and the hurt they carry, and the historical trauma that has hurt our people today with the loss of our tongue and the loss of our culture. We are trying hard to bring it back.”
“She still sings her family’s songs. One of the reasons she is still alive is that she still knows who she is.”
Just like the Lummi people, whose identity has also never been extinguished. Even when they ceded most of their ancestral lands to the government of the United States in an act of survival, their ancestors reserved their fishing rights in their home waters, in order to preserve their way of life and provide for their people. A core of the Lummi’s old territory remains in their possession, too, on the Lummi reservation along the waters of the Quel ‘lhol mechen.
On a recent morning, Bill James and Freddie Lane, a Lummi tribal councilman bounced in a pickup truck over a sandspit that emerges on the first daytime low tide each spring. It was time to go to Portage Island, an old home ground of the Lummi people that is uninhabited today, but is still used for ceremony—and clamming.
Lane set to work digging a pit in the sand and gathering beach stones while James collected driftwood for a fire. As the flames built and sweet smoke drifted, more tribal members arrived and headed to the tide flats to dig clams. There was laughter, storytelling, and soon, feasting. Shucked, cleaned, and roasted by the fire on hand-cut ironwood sticks, the clams were crunchy and smoky on the outside, sweet, creamy, and succulent within.
Just an appetizer, there was much more to come. Lane heaped rocks on a second fire over the sand pit, piling them high and baking them until the rocks were suffused with an orange glow and so hot that they started to split. Only then did Lane pour on buckets of clams and heap verdant seaweed, fresh, wet, and briny, on top. “My secret recipe,” Lane said, as plumes of steam carried the fragrance of clams on the sea wind.
Soon, elders and children were sharing in the feast. Seeing a young tribal member take a particular interest in the preparation, James gifted him his roasting sticks—all but one, carved with the name of his mother, who had passed it on to him.