We are a tribe of approximately 2,000 members, located in our ancestral homeland in the northwest corner of Washington State. Our name comes from a place name in our language and translates to “always bracken fern roots,” which illustrates our close ties to our land and the resources that continue to give strength to our people. Our tribe is located in Deming, Washington, just 15 miles east of Bellingham, 12 miles south of the Canadian border, nestled amongst majestic mountains, lush forest, and the meandering and dynamic Nooksack River. Here in this scenic locale, we maintain a Tribal Council and Tribal Government. Both our Council and Government work to create a better future for every Nooksack and ensure our tribe’s sovereignty.
We hope you’ll use this website to learn more about our tribe, our Council and Government, and that you’ll join us in the mission of supporting and preserving indigenous culture and people.
For more information on the Nooksack Indian Tribe, visit the various sections of the website or call (360) 592-5176.
Nooksack territory, within which we had direct access to resources, extended into Skagit County on the south, into British Columbia on the north, and from Georgia Strait on the west to the area around Mt. Baker on the east. The territory included a primary Nooksack area, not open to free use by members of other groups, and joint-use areas, which were shared with neighboring groups.
The primary Nooksack area was the Nooksack River watershed from near its mouth to its headwaters surrounding Mt. Baker, plus most of the Sumas River drainage south of the present international boundary. There was separate kin group (family) ownership of root digging plots at Nuxwsá7aq, the place which gave its name to the river and the people. Other, non-Nooksack people could use the resources in the Nooksack area if they shared descent from Nooksack ancestors or if they were tied to living Nooksack families by marriage. Joint-use areas occurred at the edges of Nooksack territory, including the upper North Fork shared with the Chilliwack, the upper South Fork also used by Skagit River people, and Lake Whatcom with a mixed Nooksack and Nuwhaha village. All of the salt water areas used by the Nooksack were also used by other groups: Chuckanut Bay, Samish Bay and Bellingham Bay were shared with the Nuwhaha, Samish and Lummi; Cherry Point, Birch Bay, Semiahmoo Bay and surrounding areas were shared with the Lummi and Semiahmoo.
Access to resources controlled by other groups was important, although perhaps not essential to survival. On the basis of shared descent or marriage ties most Nooksacks could traditionally have fished on the Fraser, Skagit and Samish Rivers. Similarly, the resources of Birch Bay and Semiahmoo Bay would have been accessed through these kin ties before these areas were abandoned by their native people in the early to mid 19th century.
A strong sense of territory is reinforced by the distribution of Nooksack place names, which are concentrated in the primary Nooksack area and the joint-use areas.
Nooksack Indian history goes back thousands of years. According to Native tradition, the people have been here from time immemorial—basically since the beginning of human existence on this land. There is nothing in Nooksack tradition of ever living anywhere else. Studies in linguistics and archaeology indicate a stable population of speakers of Salish languages, with no migration into the Georgia Straits/Puget Sound region, for the past several thousand years.
The Nooksack people occupied the watershed of the Nooksack River from the high mountain area surrounding Mt. Baker to the salt water at Bellingham Bay, and extended into Canada north of Lynden and in the Sumas area. The Nooksack population 250 years ago was probably about 1,200 to 1,500 people, now there are about 2,000 Members enrolled in the Nooksack Tribe. Research has identified 25 traditional winter village sites, although no more than maybe 15 of these were occupied at any one time, even before the severe population decline of the historic period caused by the new diseases. Most of these villages were in four clusters along the Nooksack River between modern Lynden and the mouth of the South Fork above Deming. The people used a broad area for hunting, fishing, gathering of foods, and traveling to visit other groups.
The Nooksack were one of many Indian groups which were party to the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855, in which title to the land of much of western Washington was exchanged for recognition of fishing, hunting and gathering rights, and a guarantee of certain government services. The Nooksack were not granted a reservation. They were expected to move to the Lummi Reservation, but few did. In 1873 and 1874 attempts were made to move the Nooksacks to the reservation, but it became clear that they would not move without military force and it was recommended that the Nooksack Indians be allowed to remain in the Nooksack Valley (Richardson 1977, 1979:10-11). Following this, Nooksacks were able to gain legal title to small portions of their traditional lands, including many of the village sites, by filing homestead claims on them. In 1874 only the lower, downriver Lynden and Everson areas had been surveyed, and seven homestead claim applications were made at this time. These included the claims of James Seclamatan (Lynden Jim, Selhámetan), surrounding Sqwehálich and of George Olooseus (Welósiws) surrounding Kwánech village. These first homesteads received five-year restricted patents under provisions of an Act of Congress passed on March 3, 1875. None of these lands are in Indian ownership today with the exception of the two tribal cemeteries on Northwood Road. As upriver areas were surveyed, 30 additional homestead claims were filed, with 29 trust titles eventually were granted to 3,847 acres under provisions of the Indian Homestead Act of 1884 (Richardson 1977). These trust homesteads included many village sites, such as Xelxál7altxw on the John Suchanon (Long Johnny) homestead, Spálhxen on the Johnson homestead, Yexsáy on the Sampson Santla homestead, and Nuxw7íyem on the Charley Adass homestead. These lands have since been administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and some 2,400 acres remain in trust today. About half of the 2,000 enrolled members of the tribe currently live on or near Nooksack trust lands.
In just a few decades, Nooksack settlement was transformed from traditional villages of cedar plank longhouses to homesteads on a Euro-American model. The Nooksack held secure title, as individuals, to a very small fraction of their traditional lands which had been almost entirely held in common. In spite of the change in land ownership, and despite living on small homestead farms, there were many continuities with the traditional past. The homesteads were all within a short distance of the traditional villages, which were also small and scattered. After homesteading, and well into the 20th century, the Nooksack continued to depend heavily for food on fishing, hunting and gathering at traditional places named in Lhéchelesem.
Since the Nooksack were not granted a separate reservation, they were no longer recognized as a Tribe by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, yet they continued to function as a Tribe. In 1926, they met under the leadership of George Swanaset to join in the Dwamish, et al. v. The United States case before the Court of Claims; in 1935 the Nooksack Tribe voted to accept the Indian Reorganization Act, but the Tribe was not permitted to organize under the act since it was not a recognized Tribe. In the 1950s the Tribe, under the leadership of Joe Louie, pursued a land claim case with the Indian Claims Commission (ICC). The ICC decided in 1955 that the Nooksack were indeed a Tribe of Indians whose lands had been taken without compensation, but that they only “exclusively occupied and used” a small portion of their traditional territory (Indian Claims Commission, Docket No. 46). It was further decided that the value of the lands at the time of the treaty was $0.65 per acre and only this amount would be paid. A payment of $43,383 for 80,000 acres of the 400,000 acres claimed was provided by Congress in 1965. The 400,000 acre claim includes a large majority of the places named in the Nooksack language that are south of the U.S.-Canada boundary. The land claim money was distributed in equal portions on a per capita basis to each recognized descendant of the Nooksack Tribe of 1855.
In the 1960s, the Tribe had a Community Action Program and launched an effort to gain federal recognition. In 1970, the Tribe gained title to four buildings on an acre of land, which became the Nooksack Reservation and is the location of the present Tribal Center in Deming. In 1973, full Federal recognition was granted. In 1974, the Nooksack Tribe joined the United States v. Washington case as a treaty tribe with fishing rights for enrolled Members. As a result, a major focus of Nooksack Tribal programs today is land and resources with a special emphasis on fishing. Fishing in the Nooksack River and salt water areas is an important source of income and food for many families, as well as being a source of cultural pride and identity. The Tribal fisheries program regulates fishing and works to enhance fish runs and protect the environment, which the fish depend on. The Tribe works closely with local, State, and Federal agencies to review proposed developments, timber harvests and other environmental disturbances, and evaluate their impact on water quality, fisheries, and cultural sites.