Vision for the Future

swinomish tribe

Mother-daughter team give back to their tribe, community in impactful ways.

Written by Tracy DeCroce
Photography by Yosef Kalinko
October 25, 2017

Some 65 miles north of Seattle, the Skagit River flattens the earth to form a fertile delta brimming with farmland before completing its journey from British Columbia to Puget Sound. In this jigsaw landscape of peninsulas, islands, inlets and waterways, Darlene Peters, ’16, and her daughter Hilary Edwards, ’17, share a bond that runs as wide and deep as the river for which the region is named. They are members of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, whose ancestors descended from the surrounding river valleys, coastal areas and islands.

Like many indigenous people today, Darlene and Hilary inhabit two worlds. But this mother and daughter are unique in possessing degrees from Seattle University. Darlene has a master’s degree in Couples and Family Therapy from the School of Theology and Ministry and Hilary a bachelor’s degree from the Albers School of Business and Economics.

That alone could have set them apart in a community where it’s rare to pursue higher education. Yet, they are as at home on the reservation as ever. Perhaps that’s because their education was tied to a common vision of “success” for the Swinomish that gives back to a community that has loved and supported them all their lives. Darlene’s role as a healer and Hilary’s business ambitions might appear unrelated, but mother and daughter say, their visions serve one another and the community as a whole.

“If you think about it, it integrates,” Hilary says. “If people aren’t healing how are they going to be successful?”

INTERSECTING VISIONS

What Darlene and Hilary seek to accomplish mirrors much of tribal progress over the past 30 years. Their different goals reflect the changing times as each woman was coming of age.

Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, Darlene experienced the course correction in federal policy that restored self-determination to indigenous people. Tribes across the country embraced the new era with self-governed business ventures such as casinos that would eventually undo years of abject poverty. The patina of progress, however, couldn’t erase the psychological wounds caused by forced relocation, discrimination and assimilation that had suppressed native culture and identity for generations. Darlene believes her parents, like so many in their community, suffered from broken spirits.

Shaped by her experiences growing up, Darlene decided at a young age to become a healer. She earned a bachelor’s degree in community services from St. Martin’s University in Lacey and held a number of educational and social work positions on and around the reservation. A devout Catholic, she chose the School of Theology and Ministry for graduate work because of its spiritual component. “The thing that keeps me going and sustains me is my relationship with Jesus Christ,” she says. 

In her work today at Swinomish Counseling Service, Darlene sees the lingering effects of her people’s fractured history in the form of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorders, domestic violence and sexual and emotional abuse.

“We are all working through our trauma, not only our trauma, but that of our ancestors,” Darlene says. “Even though it happened many years ago, it still affects our lives today.”

Compared to her mother’s day, Hilary has grown up in a time of relative prosperity. Her childhood home bears little resemblance to the ramshackle houses with no running water, electricity or indoor plumbing that tribal elders can remember. The reservation employs more than 550 people, many of them tribal members in management position, through its casino, golf course and gas stations. Today, more than 70 percent of Swinomish youth graduate high school.

A point of pride for Hilary is her family’s “very strong leadership.” Her father, Steve Edwards, has been a tribal senator for 15 years and several aunts serve on the tribal council. Though her mother doesn’t hold elected office, Hilary considers her mom a “community leader” whose higher education was “my inspiration (and) my motivation.”

Hilary sees herself as part of an upcoming generation that brings “fresh eyes” to tribal leadership and business. As an Albers undergrad, she interned with both the Swinomish Casino & Lodge and the Swinomish Golf Links. Now, she seeks to gain experience on a larger, “more advanced” reservation in California before earning her MBA. Though her path will take her away for several more years, her intention is to bring new ideas back to the Swinomish

“My community has done so much to serve me, I want to serve them back,” Hilary says. “At the end of the day, we’re all family. We’re all there for each other. My vision is for every Swinomish tribal member to be successful.”

Seeing every tribal member succeed is where Hilary and her mother’s visions intertwine. “To be a great tribal leader, you need to go and get educated; go work off the reservation. And, then come work for your people,” Darlene says.

For native people, that is not as easy as it might sound. Only about 20 percent of the Swinomish attend college despite a guarantee that their tuition, and possibly some living expenses, will be covered by the tribe after other scholarship aid is considered, says John Stephens, program administrator for the Swinomish tribal government.

The reason so few take advantage of the opportunity? “Education is the easiest data point for measuring historical trauma,” Stephens says. “It’s a long road to undo it. We are very purposefully trying to address it.”

EDUCATION INTERRUPTED

As bright as their futures look now, Hilary and Darlene nearly gave up on their education at different times. For Hilary, the experience of leaving the reservation was far more difficult than she anticipated. In Darlene’s case, she was overcome by grief when her middle daughter passed away.

As a La Conner High School honor student, Hilary had been active in a number of extracurricular activities. She felt prepared to go away to college. So, she was surprised when she succumbed to cultural isolation and loneliness.

“There were multiple times when I was ready to come home,” Hilary says of her first two years of college. “We’re so used to the love and affection that’s tied to our culture. It’s difficult to create that with people who just live on your floor. I didn’t realize how sad and lonely I’d be.”

Graduate school didn’t come easily to Darlene. The work was difficult and she struggled with “culture shock” in an environment very different from her tribal community. “It was about ‘I’ and not ‘we.’ It was about individuality and being successful. I had the most difficult time sharing my thoughts. But I kept trying. I would see someone else take a risk and think, ‘I can do that.’”

Things unraveled, however, in 2010 when Darlene’s daughter Amy decided to end her life. Amy had been born with an incurable kidney disease. Dialysis had been keeping her alive since a donated kidney from her father had stopped working. At 22, Amy decided to stop dialysis. Doctors gave her two weeks to live. She survived for seven months.

After Amy’s death, Darlene suffered severe depression, barely leaving the house. Finishing her degree was the furthest thing from her mind despite encouragement from professors and family. Ultimately, it was something Amy had said that rekindled Darlene’s dream of healing others. “Before she died, Amy told me to go back to school,” says Darlene, tears streaming down her face. “That kept me going.”

In all, it took seven years for Darlene to complete her master’s degree. One year after her receiving her diploma, she was back at Seattle University to watch Hilary, her youngest daughter, walk the stage.

PADDLING TOGETHER

Seattle University’s Pat Twohy, S.J., spent 20 years on the Swinomish Reservation as its Catholic priest. His relationship with Darlene and Hilary and their extended family almost felt like an extension of his own family.

His “profound” friendship with Darlene began when she was a teenager; he also knew her parents and sisters, but never met her brothers, who died young. Whenever he visits the reservation today, he sets aside time for long conversations with her. “Darlene’s power is to be prayerful and always open to learn from whatever life throws at her.”

In Hilary, whom he baptized and has watched grow up, Father Twohy sees someone whose ambition stood out from an early age. She is motivated, well-organized and takes challenges head-on. “She had this vision for herself since middle school and high school and she knew it was a road less traveled by her fellow native students.”

Fr. Twohy encouraged both Darlene and Hilary to consider Seattle U. He sits back and smiles thinking about where the future might lead. “They are a pair. … They don’t agree on everything, but I think they are bonded by a common horizon.”  

Through imagery inspired by the Coast Salish culture of the Swinomish, Darlene imagines that common horizon this way: “We’re people of canoe journeys. The image I get is we’re paddling together with prayers and song and gathering for healing. It’s continuous.”