Article

Shirley Williams

Shirley Williams smiling at the camera next to a painting.
Shirley Williams

https://www.whiteswanenvironmental.org/co-founders.html

Article Written by Ellie Kaplan

Pacific Northwest Indigenous activist Shirley Williams has been a force in using the ancestral homelands of the San Juan Island National Historical Park as a site for community healing through preservation of the Straits Salish culture. Her collaborations with the park are part of a multi-front advocacy to bring together Indigenous and non-Indigenous from the US and Canada to support public health, legislative, and educational initiatives. As a registered nurse who practices community medicine, she combines Indigenous forms of healthcare with Western medicine. Williams has worked many years in tribal and non-tribal healthcare settings. Between 2008 and 2017, she established the satellite medical office at the Lummi Youth Academy.1 Today, she channels Indigenous public health efforts through her nonprofit organization Whiteswan Environmental (WE), which she co-founded in 2015. WE’s expansive organizational mission includes healing historical trauma and partnering with state and federal governments to protect Indigenous trust responsibilities. WE also partners with academic researchers and nongovernment organizations, opening up culturally safe spaces to teach tribal history, culture, governance and language. Williams explains, “We aspire to restore and revive ancestral village sites, camps, reef net locations, and 13 moons food sovereignty to ensure future generations share thriving cultures and environment.”2

Whiteswan Environmental participates in the Lummi and Saanich nations’ resurgence of the Sxwo’le--an aboriginal reef net fishing technology. These reef net societies once maintained a longhouse at Pe’pi’ow elh, English Camp, on San Juan Island. Reef net fishing is central to Straits Salish culture, but was disrupted by colonization.3 “The Indigenous peoples of this territory are often called Northern Straits Salish, or Coast Salish. The dialects of the Straits Salish are distinctly connected to the reef net via kinship and economy. Lummi leader, Chow-its-hoot signed the 1855 Pt. Elliott Treaty, ensuring the Lummi the right to fish at usual and accustomed places. In 1852, he signed the Douglas Treaty on behalf of the Saanich people, to fish as formerly,” Williams explains.

Williams works with her partner Troy Olsen, who is one of many inherent birth right holders to the reef net. In this tradition, Lummi fishermen string a net between two canoes so that it lies on the ocean floor to mimic salmon habitats, thus trapping the fish.4 The practice, which had provided sustenance and wealth to generations of Straits Salish people, is so important to their Schelangen (way of life) that they call themselves the salmon people or the people of the reef net5 In the twenty-first century, the revival of reef net fishing has helped the Lummi and Saanich reassert their identity, transboundary sovereignty, familial kinship systems, sustainable fisheries and promotes intergenerational healing.6

Events between in 2015 and 2016 exemplify Williams’ collaborations with the San Juan Island National Historical Park. In August 2014, she organized events at Pe’pi’ow’elh, the historic Lummi village on San Juan Island (the National Park Service currently refers to it as English Camp), providing Straits Salish youth and community members opportunities to canoe along the traditional pathways of their ancestors.7 In 2015, Williams organized the Coast Salish Mini-University: Spirit of the Sxwo’le, where elders educated participants about traditional foods, canoeing, cosmology, and their native language. “The goal of our stewardship corps is to integrate Indigenous and Western ways of knowing,” says Williams. The camp concluded with a significant cultural easement after approximately 125 Indigenous people held a naming ceremony for the first time in generations at Lhelhinqelh, their ancestral village site and reef net fishing grounds on Henry Island.8 Williams and Olsen collaborated with the National Park Service’s 2016 centennial celebration at San Juan Island National Historical Park, seeing this as an opportunity to honor the Indigenous history and educate visitors. Consequently, this expanded the park’s narrative focus beyond the nineteenth-century cultural and military exchanges between the US and British forces that the park was established to commemorate. Working through WE, she organized a ceremony at Pe’pi’ow’elh, during which Lummi and Saanich nations carved three story boards to give to the National Parks. The story boards give insight to origin stories of the Straits Salish: the Reef Net Captain, and the Salmon People.9 “These story boards also teach us about the First Salmon ceremony, the importance of male and female balance, and respecting all life... Future installments will tell the story of the Reef Net Captain, the Salmon Woman and their children. It’s like the family in these story boards is waiting to go back home to their 800 foot longhouse, ” says Williams.

In 2015, Williams advocated to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Washington state to acknowledge trauma and promote healing and reconciliation for Indigenous peoples and nature.10 Williams also asserts her influence on several boards, including the Indigenous Education Institute, and the San Juan Islands National Monument Advisory Committee.

Shirley Williams shares Whiteswan Environmental’s vision to “support community healing through the natural, cultural, and historical restoration to the Salish Sea for seventh generation sustainability.”11 This vision drives the mission to establish a Coast Salish Tribal Heritage Field Institute--a series of longhouses where students from kindergarten to the doctoral level could learn through Indigenous curricula.12 Her work to protect Straits Salish culture emphasizes the natural environment as a key part of community and generational health. Visit https://www.whiteswanenvironmental.org/ to learn more.


1 - “Native Science Guest Speakers,” Calendar and Class Schedule, Northwest Indian College, December 4, 2015, accessed August 14, 2020, https://www.nwic.edu/event/native-science-guest-speakers/.

2 - “How we advocate,” Whiteswan Environmental, accessed August 14, 2020, https://www.whiteswanenvironmental.org/sacred-trust-responsibilities.html.

3 - “Co-Founders,” Whiteswan Environmental, accessed August 14, 2020, https://www.whiteswanenvironmental.org/co-founders.html.

4 - Colton Gully, “Captaining the Tide,” The Planet Magazine, December 12, 2017, https://theplanetmagazine.net/captaining-the-tide-e2a0f780b176.

5 - “Lummi Nation Members Honor Traditions at Historic Fishing Site,” Northwest Treaty Tribes, August 24, 2015, https://nwtreatytribes.org/lummi-nation-members-honor-traditions-at-historical-fishing-site/.

6 - Richard Walker, “Ancestral Land Made Available for Lummi Nation’s Use,” Indian Country Today, May 20, 2017, https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/ancestral-land-made-available-for-lummi-nation-s-use-xsUoBwPFq0GmFvov7VhKnQ.

7 - “Lummi Nation Returns to English Camp,” News Releases, San Juan Island National Historical Park, National Park Service, September 8, 2014, https://www.nps.gov/sajh/learn/news/lummi-nation-returns-to-english-camp.htm.

8 - “Lummi Nation Members Honor Traditions at Historic Fishing Site”; Walker, “Ancestral Land Made Available for Lummi Nation’s Use.”

9 - “National Parks Service 100th Centennial Anniversary,” Whiteswan Environmental, August 25, 2016, accessed August 14, 2020, https://www.whiteswanenvironmental.org/national-parks-service.html; Richard Walker, “‘Watershed Moment’: Pole, Story Boards Installed on Ancestral Village Site,” Indian Country Today, August 24, 2016, https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/watershed-moment-pole-story-boards-installed-on-ancestral-village-site-4H2wasfIZUmnPy9XK2Pw_g.

10 - “Lummi call for state Truth and Reconciliation Commission”; “Proclamation of Support for Truth and Reconciliation in Washington State,” Justice Washington, November 2018, accessed August 14, 2020, https://juustwa.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/WA-State-Proclamation-of-Truth-and-Reconciliation.pdf

11 - “Shirley Williams,” Womxn Among Us, Talking to Crows, March 28, 2019, accessed August 14, 2020, https://www.talkingtocrows.com/womxn-among-us#/shirley-williams/.

12 - “Home,” Whiteswan Environmental, accessed August 14, 2020, https://www.whiteswanenvironmental.org/.

Acknowledgements:

This project was made possible in part by a grant from the National Park Foundation.

This project was conducted in Partnership with the University of California Davis History Department through the Californian Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit, CA# P20AC00946