Tribal gathering brings vast sense of heritage, tradition

The anticipation is building. Nearly 13,000 Native American and First Nation tribes, representing 130 Northwest Coastal tribal communities are paddling down Puget Sound this morning. They are coming from places like Alaska, California, Hawaii and British Columbia.

Some have been paddling for weeks, stopping to visit other tribal communities on their journey.

When they land at North Point on the Port peninsula Sunday afternoon, it will mark the end of the 2012 Canoe Journey, and the beginning of a weeklong celebration of the revival of Northwest Indian traditions and sharing of individual tribal cultures.

It is an honor for the Squaxin Island Tribe to host this year’s annual gathering of Northwest coastal indigenous nations, and a privilege for South Sound non-tribal people to witness and enjoy.

The canoes will begin arriving about 1 p.m. Sunday, but those on shore will hear them before they see them. Each canoe family – with eight to 20 crew members in a 30- to 40-foot canoe – will be singing and beating their drums.

Upon arrival, each family performs the sacred Healing of the Waters, pouring water they have brought into Budd Inlet to mingle with the Squaxin native water, symbolizing the importance of the waterways to tribal ancestors.

Each family will ask permission to come ashore by raising their paddles, the traditional sign for a tribe that comes in peace. Fifteen to 20 canoes will come ashore at a time, and volunteers will pull a canoe out of the water every three minutes throughout the afternoon.

The “protocols” begin Monday, potlatch presentations by each family that usually involve drumming, dancing, singing, storytelling and gift-giving.

It is traditional that the host tribe presents last, and the Squaxins have been preparing elaborate gifts for their visitors with the help of the South Sound community, particularly The Evergreen State College.

With the help of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, students and faculty have held a serious of workshops with tribal members to produce a variety of the gifts the Squaxins will present.

These include steam-bent wood wolf masks, book covers made out of cedar bark paper, carved and painted paddles out of yellow cedar, drums and woven hats. Bent wood cedar boxes were made at the studio of Andrea Wilbur Sigo and Steve Sigo, as well as etched glass pendants.

Workshops at the Squaxin community kitchen created regalia for the host dances, along with hand-woven wool tunics and skirts, and cedar bark leggings.

Hosting this canoe journey is especially meaningful for the Squaxin tribe, who are descendents of seven tribes that prospered among the inlets of south Puget Sound. They suffered greatly as the old ways were outlawed and lost at the turn of the previous century.

South Sounders have a unique opportunity to learn more about the historical significance of the Squaxin tribe as an inter-tribal trading center and the birthplace of the Indian Shaker Church.

It is a chance to appreciate the Squaxin heritage and share in the celebration of their achievement.