Lorraine Loomis, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community fisheries manager, in a boat yard along the Swinomish Channel near La Conner, WA, August 25, 2017. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)
Lorraine Loomis’ office resides just a short walk from the Swinomish Channel in Skagit County. Across the waterway, with its fishing vessels awaiting their next adventure, sits quaint La Conner. Across the street is the Swinomish Fish Company. Seagulls cackle as they fly above the water. The air is pungent with sea salt.
This is the perfect location for someone who lives and breathes everything fishing. And that is Loomis in a nutshell. Fishing flows through her blood, a livelihood embraced by three generations in her family that traces back to a time when salmon were plentiful in Puget Sound and nearby rivers.
Now pollution, loss of habitat and urban growth are wreaking havoc on sea life and the environment. At age 77, Loomis is taking on those challenges and uncertainties of the salmon’s future as chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NWIFC), a position once held by the late Billy Frank Jr.
“Fishing has always been part of my family’s culture,” says Loomis, who has worked as the tribal fisheries manager for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community for more than four decades. She oversees the natural resource management activities of the tribal commission’s 65-person staff.
Loomis is passionate about her work, known as someone who will fight for doing what’s right when it comes to fishing even if it means drawing a line in the sand when it comes to negotiating. She can be stern but a minute later, she can also be full of laughter.
“That is a good quality to have,” said Shawn Yanity, the NWIFC vice-chairman and Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians fisheries chairman. “She is a very dedicated person when it comes to not only protecting the resource but protecting treaty interests.”
Those on the other side of the table in fisheries management also hold great respect for Loomis.
“Especially as a woman in the fishery world, her role as a leader is remarkable,” said Pat Pattillo, a retired Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife salmon policy manager. “She’s a warrior for the tribes, and I didn’t enjoy challenging her in co-management negotiations because she could be quite fierce.”
“I flinched many times when she pointed her sharp finger in my face. But with time, I found out that Lorraine had a big heart. Her passionate style was a reflection of her caring deeply for her family, tribal people and people generally.”
Loomis was born and raised in La Conner on the Swinomish Reservation. Her grandfather Charles Wilbur fought to save treaty rights in the 1930s. Her father Tandy Wilbur Sr. was the first general manager of the Swinomish Tribe; her mother Laura served on the tribal’s Senate for more than 50 years and worked tirelessly to secure funding that founded the Swinomish Tribal government. When Tandy passed away at age 71 in 1975, Laura continued to work and was influential in promoting tribal housing and health care before passing away at age 93 in 1997.
Growing up in the 1940s and ‘50s meant facing racism and discrimination.
“It was simply our way of life and I really didn’t notice the backlash that my parents and other elders felt at the time,” Loomis recalls.
At her elementary school, Native students had to leave school at noon during lunchtime and cross a bridge to the rez for lunch, Loomis remembers. It wasn’t until around 1954 that she and her classmates were allowed to eat in the school’s lunchroom.
When she got older, the discrimination continued.
“Once we graduated (from high school) is when I noticed a much different life. All of a sudden we couldn’t get work, and even with good recommendations we still couldn’t get jobs. I know my brothers had to say they were non-Indians in order to get a job.”
After attending one year at Skagit Community College, Loomis married and returned to the reservation to start a family.
She worked as a fish processor, 14-15 hours, seven days a week.
“That is when I decided fisheries management would be easier, and it definitely wasn’t,” she says.
Loomis entered “fish politics” shortly after Frank, a Nisqually Tribal Member, and Robert Satiacum Jr. of the Puyallup Tribe asserted tribal fishing rights, staging “fish-ins” on the Puyallup River. This was a tumultuous and life-changing period in Native American history — Frank was arrested more than 50 times — and the Boldt decision ensuring tribal fishing rights was handed down. Loomis felt inspired, taking the helm as the Swinomish Tribal fisheries manager in 1975.
“All the older commissioners and leaders helped educate and mentor me,” Loomis said of her early years as the tribe’s fisheries manager. “The commission made me what I am today.”
In the years that followed, the legal battles continued between the tribes and non-tribal fishermen.
“It was a very scary time, and we never knew what to expect when we went fishing,” Loomis said.
Frank, known to many as a problem solver and someone who could make peace when others could not, became a mentor. Loomis would meet with him monthly for dinner —“usually right before our commission meetings.” She served as his vice-chair on the NWIFC; he was chair.
“When we were in a tough negotiation meeting and he knew I was getting uptight, he would write a silly note and put it in front of me. I would laugh and then be able to go on. We worked very well together and I miss that.” Frank died in 2014.
Through the decades, Loomis’ fish politicking has included helping shape the Puget Sound Salmon Management Plan; advocating hatchery mitigation and habitat restoration where needed; mentoring younger tribal members on the importance of cultural identity; navigating the brief closure of the chinook fishing season in 2016, and implementing the U.S.-Canada Pacific Salmon Treaty.
Her work is 24/7. Meetings, travel, an endless stream of paperwork.
“I don’t go fishing anymore,” Loomis says. “But I enjoy meeting with tribes and doing what I can to help them as chairman. What makes me happiest is being able to see fishermen leave the dock for the first time. That is how they were raised and it is our culture.”
When asked what type of legacy she’d like to leave behind, she gazes out her office window and smiles.
“You have to be able to think for tomorrow. We never work for today. We work for generations to come. You have to work together for that goal to keep fishermen on the water. It is my life to work for our people and for their children’s, children.”