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Community harvest

Clamming and community together form a cornerstone of the Upper Skagit Tribe. And although wholly different words with unrelated meanings, one does not exist without the other.

Thursday marked the first time since 9/11 that the tribal members were allowed to clam as a community at Forbes Point, located on the far side of Maylor Point on the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station Seaplane Base.

How happy were they? That’s a rhetorical question.

“It’s a big deal for us to return to this beach because this is one of the two beaches we were accessing prior to 9/11,” said Scott Schuyler, spokesman for the tribe. “To get access back is huge because it basically increases our area by 50 percent. It’s a big day for us.

“This is probably a one or two shot deal because of security protocol, but we’re very grateful.”

Cama Beach on Camano Island is the other area the tribe has been accessing.

Approximately 30 tribal members made the precarious trek down the steep stairs and traveled by boat to the beach that was slowly emerging as the tide receded.

For those physically able to dig, they dug. For some of the elders, their mere presence brought a palpable spirit to the gathering.

“One of the things about our culture, when it’s digging clams or whatever, it’s always the community that’s doing it,” Schuyler said. “We’re here to help each other. It’s not just one person, one family. Nobody’s really digging for themselves. We’re digging for everyone.”

The Upper Skagit has always been a subsistence tribe, fishing and clamming. Although they will gladly fill a bucket with steamers if available, they dig primarily for butter clams. By 11 a.m. on Thursday, the buckets were already brimming.

“The beach is rocky and they are butter clams, but we’re thankful,” Schuyler said. “It’s looking really good.”

The clams were to be shuttled to the seaplane base boat launch, where they would later be transferred to the reservation. After that, the fate of the mollusks is up in the air.

“Some of the tribal members dry or smoke them to make them last longer. Some use them for bartering,” Schuyler said, adding that the clams also wind up in the ubiquitous clam chowder.

Sarah Artz and her younger brother Joseph Bisson worked as a cohesive unit as they dug a formidable hole and sifted through the booty. Taking a breather, the 24-year-old Artz reflected on the importance of the day.

“It feels good,” she said. “It’s a chance to come together as a community and work and share things together. We’re a fishing community and this is good for our people and our nation. Just to be out here and share experiences is incredible.”

Artz and her 15-year-old brother agreed that having the elders participate added a special level of reverence to the day.

“They’re our teachers,” she said. “They’re the ones who keep the traditions for the future generations. It’s important for us to keep these types of events and have everyone involved, elders and the young.”

Beverly Lemen, a self-proclaimed elder at 63 years old, worked side-by-side with two other generations of her family. When shoveling became too grueling, her nephew picked up the slack.

“It’s really been an honor to be here today,” Lemen said. “If we have any special gathering, it’s always a pleasure to have clams. I’m just so happy to be out here. It is a staple of our tribe. I love steamers and I really love clam chowder. In fact when I make clam chowder I have to call my daughter and save her some.”

Transcending sustenance, the ritual of digging clams is vital in maintaining tradition. Even if no clams were found, which would have been implausible after seven years of living uninterrupted in the sand, the day would have been a success.

“It’s close bonding with families, just collecting food together like we have for thousands of years,” Schuyler said. “It’s important for us as a tribe to continue our treaty rights to make sure that these treaties have values that stay.”

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