Within a tribal nation, the elders are some of the most celebrated members — the keepers of knowledge and history.
At the Samish Indian Nation, that normally means luncheons to feed the elders, events in their honor and classes to help them pass their knowledge of the Samish culture on to younger people.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed all of those things, but the staff has adapted how it operates to make sure the elders get the support they need.
For more than a year, the tribe’s Elder Program has delivered weekly bags of food, craft supplies, herbs for the garden and tokens of appreciation to its elders in the area.
The program aims both to take care of the older members of the tribe and to make sure their stories, skills and history are not lost.
“We see the Samish elders as being holders of wisdom and teachers for generations to come,” Samish Elder Program Manager Allison Coonc said. “The Elders Program is working really hard to help them continue to share their gifts.”
The program is open to tribal members age 45 and older.
“You grow into it, I guess,” Samish Elder Pat Dunn said.
In a normal year, the program comes together for meals, social opportunities, classes and other events. The program offers caregiver support for those who caring for older tribal members. Often, those caregivers are unpaid family members. So the program can help them with resources.
Crafting classes offer the chance to learn new skills, like cedar weaving or crafting button blankets and walking sticks. Dunn said he’s learned many new skills through these classes and is now sharing that knowledge with others. The classes are open to people of all ages, so the elders can pass on skills to younger generations.
Things have been a little different for the past year, Coonc said. For example, the crafting classes all went online.
Virtual gatherings offer opportunities that in-person ones can’t, she said. Tribal members are connecting with distant relatives and are able to welcome guests from all over the world.
“Elders can participate across miles near and far,” she said.
Each year, area tribes each host elder gatherings with food, gifts and activities. This year, the Samish Indian Nation is hosting a large elder luncheon at the end of June, but it will all be virtual due to the pandemic, she said.
Dunn said his 93-year-old mother has figured out how to use technology so she can join in, and other visitors from far away will be joining in, too.
When a group of Samish tribal members come together, the elders always eat first, Dunn said. If the elders are not able to go get their food, the younger people get it for them, but everyone waits until the elders have been served.
Feeding the elders has continued throughout the pandemic, Coonc said. Samish staff and volunteers have been working with elders to deliver bags of food so they will have enough to eat.
It’s been very helpful, especially for those elders who don’t feel comfortable or are unable to go to the grocery store, Dunn said. Elders can choose between premade meals and supplies.
Along with general food, the staff has been able to include some native foods, like stinging nettle teas and salmon, Coonc said.
Other supplies and goodies are often included, like toiletries and household supplies. This year, there has also been vegetable and herb starts and seeds, so the elders can plant their own gardens at their homes.
The meal delivery team also acts as mail couriers, so if an elder needs something from the tribe or checks out a book from the tribal library, it can be delivered along with the food. Supplies for crafting classes are also often included in the bundles.
The delivery program has been happening since April 2020, Coonc said.
“It’s really going strong,” she said. “It’s a robust delivery system to provide and meet the elder’s needs.”
Tucked into the bags are often artworks, letters or other items made for the elders by the students at the Samish Longhouse Preschool. The Hello Friend Project is creating penpals between the two groups. They exchange coloring sheets, letters and drawings.
Recently, the teacher even led the students through the process of making soap, which was delivered the elders.
This idea blossomed when both the elders and children were at home full-time and didn’t have those interactions that they so need, Coonc said. This is a way to bring people together without needing to have them physically in the same space.
For some, it’s helping give them a little inspiration, too. During the pandemic, some of the elders didn’t feel like participating in things, because they are stuck at home all the time without that interaction.
This is helping spark some interest, so elders can make crafts for their young Hello Friend partners, she said.
“After the pandemic, one of our program goals is to continue with the Hello Friend projects and crafting,” she said.
Eventually, this program can bring together both groups in person, so the preschool children and elders can meet face-to-face.
That idea of a connection between the tribe’s oldest and youngest members is a main focus of the elder program, Dunn said.
“This is a way of passing things on, so it doesn’t get lost,” he said.
Traditionally, that’s what would happen in the tribe. While the adults would go out to fish or gather food, the elders would raise the children.
“It takes a tribe to raise the group,” he said.
Dunn said learning about Samish traditions have made his grandsons “very excited” to be a part of the tribal nation.
“They like the singing and drumming, especially,” he said.
Dunn said that as a child, he didn’t always embrace his tribal background. Now, he is learning history and culture and is ready to pass those things along.
“We need to keep that culture out there so we don’t forget,” he said.
A language program within the tribe is becoming very successful, which is helping younger people learn the language and pass it on so it doesn’t fade away.
It also helps Samish culture and history more widely known in the community, Dunn said. It’s amazing how many people who live in Anacortes don’t know that the Samish people exist or that they are here in town, he said.