The host tribe, aided by a small army of volunteers, is playing host this week to a gathering of more than 100 coastal tribes, the largest known gathering of cultures ever in the South Sound region.
Many of the tribal members made a colorful entrance to lower Budd Inlet by canoe Sunday. Now a weeklong celebration of tribal culture is under way with a potlatch of singing, dancing, drumming and gift-giving by some 50 of the tribes starting at 10 a.m. each day and lasting into the night through Sunday.
Much of the celebration, an annual summer event at various host tribes since 1993, is directed at tribal youth, infusing them with cultural knowledge and pride in a drug- and alcohol-free environment.
“We’re here to try to save our people,” said Gene Sampson, one of the skippers of the Hoh Tribe’s family canoe. “Once the youth learn their culture, they have a choice on how to live their lives.”
The tribal complex atop a hill above the Kamilche Valley near the tribal ancestral waters of Little Skookum and Totten inlets is liberally dotted with signs, urging tribal youth to turn their backs on drugs and alcohol with messages such as “Drugs are not good medicine” and “Getting high is not a ceremony.”
The cultural celebration that sprawled across the Squaxin Island tribal reservation seemed to resonate with many of the young people in attendance.
“It’s the first time I’ve been to a canoe journey,” noted Tulalip tribal member Winona Keyline, 16, her voice an explosion of enthusiasm. “It’s the best time of my life with all the love and peace I feel here. When I go back to Tulalip, I’ll be a different person.”
As with many of those gathered, Dennis Thomas can trace his heritage back through more than one tribe. He is of Nisqually, Cowlitz and Chehalis tribal descent. So the celebration is a chance to not only make new friends, but catch up with old friends, too.
“When I come to one of these, it’s like old home week,” Thomas said.
Thomas and his wife, Cheryl, could be found Tuesday on a grassy lane filled with vendors selling Indian art, cedar bark hats, jewelry, animal furs and other regalia.
Atop Sampson’s cedar hat was the head and skin of a coyote, the trickster in many Coast Salish cultures. Across his back was a drum he will use to drum one of his wolf songs that a contingent of Hohs will perform during their protocol Wednesday.
“We also have a lot of gifts to give – elk meat and fish and other things you can’t buy in a store,” Sampson said.
It took the Hoh canoe family 19 days to make the journey up the Washington coast, through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and south the entire length of Puget Sound.
“We had good seas and bad seas – whatever Mother Nature had to offer us,” he said.
Some of those who poled the canoes were among the first to visit the first aid station set up next to the protocol tent by the Thurston County Medical Reserve Corps, which consists of volunteer nurses.
“We’re treating a lot of blisters on the hands and feet from paddling, drumming and being on the saltwater for so long,” nurse Roxanne Cobb said. “But we haven’t had any 911 calls. They’re taking very good care of themselves.”
The tribe has a medical center staffed by a doctor for more serious medical needs. It’s also providing breakfast and dinner for the canoe families, their support crews and volunteers in a huge tent next to the protocol tent. Nearby, a giant campground accommodates many of the tribal guests and volunteers.
A number of food vendors are also set up to provide lunches and other meals for visitors to the celebration, which is open to the public for free.
Among the food vendors is Xinh Dwelley, owner and chef of Xinh’s Clam and Oyster House in Shelton. Among her offerings is a bowl of white rice and curried mussels for $5.
“We’re here to support the tribe,” she said.
Squaxin tribal officials reported no major glitches in the first days of the event, suggesting their two years of planning and preparation for the 2012 canoe journey is paying off.
“I think things are going really well,” Squaxin Island tribal member Leslie Johnson said.