Submitted by Kimberly Mayer
San Juan Island
Harbors, lighthouses, beaches, wildlife, and farmlands describe both Martha’s Vineyard and San Juan Island, two seemingly idyllic islands at sea. Just off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Martha’s Vineyard is twice the size and primarily a summer colony. North of Seattle in the Salish Sea, just off B.C. Canada, San Juan Island also attracts its share of summer visitors. The climate on both islands is more temperate than the mainland. “The Vineyard” enjoys cooler summers and warmer winters than inland by a few degrees, and San Juan Island, far more sun than Seattle and an unusually dry climate for Western Washington.
Whaling brought Martha’s Vineyard to prominence in the 19th century, while a booming timber industry coupled with lime kiln operations nearly devastated old-growth trees on San Juan Island. Today both islands are extraordinarily sensitive to fragile, vital ecosystems on land and water. On Martha’s Vineyard, approximately 65 percent of the island has been designated “Priority Habitat” for rare and endangered species of plants and animals. Similarly, San Juan Preservation Trust purchases and receives donations of land, protecting saltwater shores, woodlands, and one of the last remaining native prairies.
Originally inhabited by indigenous people — Coast Salish peoples in the San Juan Islands, and Wampanoag people on Martha’s Vineyard where there is still a small population. Coast Salish tribes moved about all the San Juan Islands, following the seasons in what archaeologists call “a seasonal round,” fishing, hunting, and harvesting. As the U.S. government claimed the islands, it opened the land to homesteading for U.S. citizens, running Native Americans off the land they knew.
Meanwhile over on Martha’s Vineyard, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head is embroiled today in a court battle over the transformation of a community center into a casino on their reservation. So it’s not all roses there either.
Here we are, two islands at sea all these years later without getting the first thing right: our relationship with indigenous peoples. We’re all on borrowed land.
Never forget that, we are all on borrowed land.