Acknowledging footprints

Enjoying San Juan Islands as well as remembering those who were there first 

Symbol of the Upper Skagit Tribe (Perris Larson/Seattle Pacific University)

Summer vacation, research expedition or a Seattle Pacific University field trip, the San Juan Islands have something to offer everyone. Blakely Island is one of 172 named islands in the archipelago that consists of the San Juans.

While the islands are appealing for their scenic beauty and wildlife, there is another aspect: the tribes who inhabited the land long before Europeans came into the picture.

Scott Schuyler, member, cultural and natural resource policy representative of the Upper Skagit Tribe emphasizes the importance of being proper stewards of the earth.  The stories and wisdom passed down generations regard tribal history but also an appreciation for nature in all its forms.

“As ancestral stewards of the landscape, the tribes of the San Juans preserved, protected and lived in harmony with the ecosystem,” Schuyler said.  “We need to take on the same values the tribes had.”

Maps of Blakely Island (Perris Larson/Seattle Pacific University)

The Upper Skagit Tribe is affiliated with the Coast Salish Tribe, but has a small saltwater footprint in Samish Bay. 

The respect for the earth runs deep in tribal stories and culture. The Coast Salish Tribe is one of many tribes that have stories of guardian spirits that are seen in wildlife.

Sketch from Loon and Deer Were Traveling: A Story of the Upper Skagit of Puget Sound (Perris Larson/Seattle Pacific University)

Blakely Island is home to a variety of animals, most notable deer and mink. 

“The Faith of a Coast Salish Nation” emphasizes the importance of guardian spirits, how they allowed people to sustain themselves and their families. In Coast Salish culture, mink is a guardian spirit that helps fishermen at sea. Deer are guardian spirits in a similar way, as deer spirits aid hunters. 

“It was not about selling trees, or mining,” Schuyler said. “It was about living and sustaining yourself.”

Schuyler believes the best way for visitors of the San Juan Islands to acknowledge the footprints of Indigenous people is to be stewards of the land, treating the land and its ecosystems with respect.

“Unfortunately we see so much degradation going on right now. We all contribute to it,” Schuyler said. “But we have an obligation to leave things better than when we found it.”