Lummi fishermen pass down reef net heritage

Lummi Nation fishermen are returning to the traditional method of harvesting salmon in a reef net.

The tribe held reef net fisheries for hundreds of years at traditional sites such as Cherry Point, known in the tribal language as Xwe’chi’eXen. After the Lummi Nation signed the Point Elliott Treaty in 1855, tribal fishermen continued to reef net until about 1894, when non-Indian fish traps out-competed them, according to the 1974 U.S. v. Washington ruling that reaffirmed tribal treaty fishing rights.

A 1934 ban on fish traps in Puget Sound gave tribal fishermen renewed access to their traditional sites, but the 1939 opening of a cannery brought more competition from non-Indian fishermen who were able to reef net in more profitable locations.

In the U.S. v. Washington ruling, Judge George Boldt noted that there were 43 reef nets operating off Lummi Island at the time; none of them by tribal fishermen.

“Our journey back to the sxwole, our reef nets, is in its infancy and we’re just now starting,” said Troy Olsen, one of the fishermen leading the effort. “We’ll go through several years of trials before we can really get back to the salmon path.”

The tribe had four new wooden canoes made for reef netting. Traditionally, fishermen suspended the reef net between two canoes.

“It’s an imitation of the seafloor, like a reef, that’s why it’s called a reef net,” said Lummi fisherman Richard Solomon. “Sxwole is what our people called it. It was a gift earned by one of our people, I don’t know exactly how many years ago, (maybe) 200 years ago.”

Tribal fishermen watch from the canoes for the salmon to swim into the simulated reef and then lift the net.

“One of the things that is our challenge with reef nets is that we need to be in water that’s clear,” said Lummi fisherman Troy Olsen. “We need to be able to see the old hereditary salmon path. We have to relive the path.”

In August, to practice with the reef net, tribal youth paddled one of the canoes about four miles to Cherry Point, known in the tribal language as Xwe’chi’eXen, from the Stommish grounds on the Lummi reservation.

“Our main goal today is to get set out and then if we’re on the right tide, the kids can kind of get an idea of what it feels like, what the ancestors did,” Olsen said. “We have a long ways to go in our sites. This is just one site of probably many hundreds of sites that kids can explore over time.”

In addition to fishing at Cherry Point, the tribe plans to reef net near Point Roberts, across Boundary Bay from the Lummi reservation and close to the Canadian border.

The Tsawout First Nation in British Columbia also is returning to the reef net.

“We fished our reef net at Pender Island, at a location known as SXIXTE,” said Tsawout First Nation member Nick Claxton, Indigenous adviser and instructor at the University of Victoria. “This was the first time the reef net was used in the Canadian waters of our territory in about a century. Moving forward we are also hoping to re-establish our reef net fishing practice and connect to all of the other hereditary sites, maybe even on the San Juans, alongside our relatives from Lummi.”

The Tsawout invited Lummi tribal members to a blessing in August.

“It was an honor to be present during their sacred ceremony,” said Lummi tribal member Shirley Williams, who works with the Lummi Youth Academy. “The Tsawout are also reconnecting to the healing energy of the sxwole.”

“Before contact we would have been one people,” Olsen said. “We weren’t considered tribes then. We shared a long history of coming together at these historical sites that would have fed the people.”

Watch a video about the return to reef netting.