Tribe reviving traditional shellfish resources, management practices

As part of a growing effort to revive ancestral food stewardship practices, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community this spring invited relatives from throughout the Pacific to help with local shellfish recovery projects. 

At least 27 Indigenous communities were represented—including from British Columbia, Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and Palau—at a gathering June 5-7 called the Salish Summit. 

Swinomish leadership said the multi-day event was about bringing the Indigenous community together and working collaboratively to heal the ecosystem. 

“This is our culture,” Swinomish Sen. Alana Quintasket said. “This is work we are doing for future generations.”

Swinomish fisheries technician Lindy Hunter pulls a load of rocks to volunteers helping to finish building the tribe’s clam garden in June.

Together, the tribe and their guests finished building a rock wall on the shore of Kiket Island that will, over time, shelter a burgeoning garden of clams and other resources. 

“Having this rock wall, this clam garden, will help us have sustainable traditional foods,” said Aurelia Washington, Swinomish senator and cultural director.  

Quintasket and her uncle, Joe Williams, are among those from the tribe who learned about clam gardens just a few years ago, and then set out to restore the practice to their homelands. 

“I could not believe I went through so much of my life without knowing such a core feature of Coast Salish culture,” Quintasket said. 

Williams said he was able to visit an active garden in British Columbia and was then eager to bring the ancient technology back home. 

“I got to meet the elders on the beach and get the full sense of what a clam garden is. I’d never been on this island before, but I could feel my ancestors and the millennia of work done there,” he said. “It’s our job to ensure that our next seven generations can continue this way of life and the ability to harvest foods in our ancestral manner.” 

The Swinomish Tribe began building the rock wall on Kiket Island in August 2022, laying the groundwork for establishing a clam garden shore-side of the structure. Following that launch of the project and a few community visits over the winter, the excitement about completing the wall in June was palpable. 

The wall built in 2022 emerges during low tide in June 2023, before the rocks in the foreground were added to the structure.

“It’s so exciting to see the rock wall coming out of the water. We only get to see it a few times a year, and the last time I saw it was in the dark, in January,” Quintasket said as she saw the outgoing tide transform the wall from a dark line beneath the waves to a stack of boulders along the shore. “This is the first time I’ve seen it in daylight since August. It uplifts my heart. It gives me life.” 

Dozens of volunteers lined the beach to haul, pass and stack heavy rocks along the wall. Visitors from Alaska, Hawaii and other tribes in Washington said they shared the Swinomish Tribe’s excitement about the project and they hope to expand the resurgence of ancestral food management practices on their own beaches. 

“This is just priceless knowledge,” Williams said. 

He’s proud to play a part in his tribe’s strengthening of that knowledge. Memories an elder once shared with him about time on Kiket Island as a child, he said, reaffirmed that tending the beach is not a new practice. 

“He was talking about how his aunties would tend their garden. This was a garden,” Williams said of the new rock wall site. “These beaches were so important to our way of life.” 

Beyond the clam garden 

Like clam gardens, the native oyster of the region, the Olympia oyster, was an important component of area beaches for millennia. While the species is present now in just a few bays and at a fraction of its historical numbers, it is also making a return to local waters—with some help. 

“There are places that once held millions and millions of oysters and now they are completely gone,” said Marco Hatch, an environmental sciences professor at Western Washington University and a partner in the Indigenous Aquaculture Collaborative Network that helped organize the Salish Summit. 

Skye Augustine of British Columbia, left, and Jordan Yoshimoto of  Hawaii,  exchange a bag of oyster shells seeded with a new generation of Olympia oysters to rebuild the native shellfish population.

Efforts to restore the Olympia oyster began in the early 2000s in Fidalgo Bay, along Swinomish homelands. The work has since expanded, including in nearby Samish Bay. 

During the Salish Summit, the Swinomish Tribe partnered with Taylor Shellfish Farms and the Puget Sound Restoration Fund to help further the Samish Bay project. Volunteers lifted netted bags of Pacific oyster shells, moving them from a truck to the beach. 

The shells were dotted with baby oysters; an estimated 1.25 million of them clung to the bundles in total. Taylor Shellfish Farms later moved the oysters by boat to deeper water. The hope is that they will grow and eventually spawn a new generation. 

Restoring traditional foods like clams and oysters, as well as salmon, has been a multi-generational effort at Swinomish. Williams noted at the Salish Summit how cultural leader Larry Campbell, who died in 2022, and revered matriarch Lorraine Loomis, who died in 2021, worked to secure these resources.

Loomis came from a fishing family and dedicated her life to fighting for and managing the tribe’s treaty resources. She served as Swinomish fisheries manager for 40 years and sat on the NWIFC for many of those years, including as chair after Billy Frank Jr. walked on. In every role she held, Loomis championed the restoration of traditional foods and improved access to those resources.

“It was her life’s work to see our people become more sovereign with our food,” Williams said.

Campbell also spent much of his life focused on traditional foods, environmental impacts to them and the cultural necessity for them. He worked for the tribe for nearly 30 years, including as the tribe’s community environmental health specialist, and was instrumental in the tribe’s nationally recognized climate change work. Campbell also helped move the tribe’s history-making clam garden from concept to reality. 

“He really, really believed in protecting our first foods and making sure we had that spiritual nourishment,” Williams said.

To know how the taste of clams or oysters varies from one beach to another, he said, and to long for those flavors, is a special connection for Indigenous peoples with deep ties to the landscape. 

“Our cravings for these foods are deeper than wanting a Happy Meal,” Williams said. 

At top: A rock is handed off for placement along the Swinomish Tribe’s clam garden on June 5, during the Salish Summit. Photos and story: Kimberly Cauvel