The Upper Skagit are a federally recognized Native American tribe living in the state of Washington. The Upper Skagit people are descendants of a tribe that inhabited 10 villages on the Upper Skagit and Sauk rivers in western Washington state. The 84-acre Upper Skagit Reservation lies in the uplands of the Skagit River Valley, east of Sedro-Woolley in Skagit County. Another 15 acres of undeveloped commercial land lie along Interstate 5 near Alger.
Flowing more than 125 miles from glaciers in the Canadian Cascade Mountains, through old-growth forests and farmlands to Skagit Bay in the Puget Sound, the Skagit River is western Washington’s largest stream. Outside of Canada and Alaska, it is one of the few rivers that sustains all of its original salmon species: Chinook, Chum, Coho, Pink and Sockeye. Skagit River salmon shaped human subsistence patterns. When the salmon run began, fishermen took canoes to fish camps, down to the mouth of the river.
Headmen of the Upper Skagit Tribe were among the signatories to the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855. The government said the Upper Skagit were not one group, there were villages that made up the Upper Skagit. Surveyors from the Northern Pacific Railroad crossed Upper Skagit land in 1870. Then came the white settlers. The Upper Skagit people suffered from diseases from white contact. Beginning in the 17th century, Spanish, English, and American explorers came into contact with Puget Sound tribes. Many years would pass before the first non-Indian settlers began to trickle into the Skagit Valley in 1846. Like their Native American counterparts, they were attracted to the valley’s plentiful natural resources — especially the fertile soil. Following conflicts between land-hungry white settlers and Washington Indians in the 1850s, the territory’s governor and Indian Agent, Isaac Stevens, drafted several peace treaties. The Point Elliott Treaty, signed on January 22, 1855 by about 80 tribal leaders, including headmen of the Upper Skagit tribe, called for Puget Sound tribes to cede vast tracts of land. In exchange, the tribes were paid a small amount of money and were assured federal health, education and welfare services as well as the prerogative to hunt and fish at their traditional places. In addition, some land was reserved for their use. The government said the Upper Skagit were not one distinct group; they would not be assigned a reservation. The Point Elliott Treaty signatories and their people were expected to move onto the new Lummi, Swinomish or Tulalip reservations within a year of Congressional ratification, but some tribes resisted, often fiercely. Rather than ensure peace, the treaties touched off an Indian war in eastern Washington when some tribal members refused to relocate.
Following the U.S. government’s acquisition of Native American land for settlers, it neglected for decades to fulfill its benefactor role as stipulated in the Point Elliott Treaty and others. Before European colonization, the tribe occupied lands along the Skagit River, from as far downstream as present-day Mount Vernon, Washington, and villages going north as far as Newhalem along the Skagit River, as well as lands on the Baker, and the Sauk rivers. Culturally, the Upper Skagit share characteristics with the Lower Skagit, the Coast Salish, such as the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe, as well as the Plateau Indians on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains. The Upper Skagit Reservation covers an 84-acre parcel of land east of Sedro Woolley in Skagit County. An additional 15 acres of non-developed commercial land is located along Interstate 5 near the town of Alger. The reservation is located in the Cascade foothills. The Upper Skagit are a Lushootseed Native American tribe living in the state of Washington. In pre-Colonial times, the tribe occupied lands along the Skagit River, from as far downstream as the land currently occupied by Mount Vernon, Washington, and villages going north as far as Newhalem along the Skagit River, as well as lands on the Baker River, and the Sauk River. Culturally, the Upper Skagit share characteristics with the Lower Skagit, the Coast Salish, as well as the Plateau Indians from the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains.
Cedar longhouses lay along the riverbanks from present-day Mount Vernon to Newhalem in northwest Washington, until the dwellers were compelled to resettle onto reservations in the mid-1800s. The Upper Skagit people lived along the Skagit River from Diablo, all the way west to its mouth. Archaeological digs have revealed evidence of human habitation in the Upper Skagit River basin dating to 8,500 years ago. Extended families or bands lived in the longhouses. Cooking fires were positioned in the middle with ceiling holes directly above. Rafters served as drying racks for smoked salmon. The Skagit River’s residents practiced basketweaving for untold generations. Artisans rendered riverbank roots, bark, and bear grass gathered in the forest, into an array of basket types. Some baskets were created for smoked salmon, others for dried meat or berries.
Elders’ stories were woven from the river and its surroundings. The stories revealed to the next generation where the best salmon fishing was and where to hunt game in the mountains, how to find sacred ground in the mountains, and where to bathe in the river for healing. Spiritual ceremonies also were held, with smoke and fire as a medium.
There are eleven bands of Indians that comprise the Upper Skagit Tribe. The Skagit River Valley was home to a number of Native American tribes known as the Coastal Samish, which comprised two linguistic groups: the Straits, including the Clallam, Lummi, Samish and Semiahmoo tribes; and the Lushootseed, including the Skagit, Snohomish, Snoqualmie, Swinomish and Upper Skagit. Government facilities are located on the southeast portion adjacent to Helmick Road with a largely undeveloped hillside rising north and east of these facilities. Immediately west of the government facilities is Red Creek. The tribe operates under bylaws and constitution that was adopted on December 4, 1936. The tribe is governed by the seven-member Upper Skagit Tribal Council. In January of 1951 the tribe filed a claim for the consideration for the lands ceded to the United States was unconscionably low. On September 23, 1968 a final judgment ordered for the tribe to be awarded $385,471.42.
Nearly 120 years following the Point Elliott Treaty and other treaties, the state of Washington attempted to regulate tribal fishing, but the tribes resisted on legal grounds: They already had the right to fish (and hunt) in their usual and accustomed places. The treaties had stipulated that the tribes were not giving up that right. Put in mind of its treaty obligation, the federal government took the state to court. In 1974, U.S. District Judge George H. Boldt ruled that the tribes were entitled to 50 percent of the fish harvests. The tribes then became fishery co-managers with the state.
The 11 bands of Indians that comprised the Upper Skagit Tribe had historically inhabited the land between present-day Mount Vernon and Newhalem in northwest Washington — ceded by treaty, but without land reserved for them. Years without a reservation home caused some Upper Skagits to move to other states.
Three hydroelectric dams were constructed on the Upper Skagit River, now in the North Cascades National Park:
Gorge Dam – wood (1923); masonry (1950); high concrete (1960)
Diablo Dam – (1927-30)
Ross Dam – first stage (1940); second and third stages (1949)
The resulting three reservoirs provide power for Seattle City Light. The three dams differ in height: Gorge – 300 feet, Diablo – 389 feet, and Ross – 540 feet. The nature of the river was changed forever.
An original signatory of the Treaty of Point Elliott, the Upper Skagit people are descended from a tribe with ten separate villages on the Upper Skagit and Sauk Rivers in Washington state. Our ancestors eventually consolidated, but a separate reservation was not originally established, and some tribal members had to reside on other reservations, primarily Swinomish. Our Tribe received formal federal recognition in early 1970s, with land put into trust for the tribe in 1984. The Upper Skagit Indian Tribe received formal federal recognition on December 4, 1974. However, it was not until September 10, 1981 that the Upper Skagit Reservation was established.