KAMILCHE — Some time today, tribal families from all over the Pacific Northwest will pack up their regalia, drums, canoes and memories, and return to their ancestral lands stretching from northern British Columbia to Oregon.
Left behind will be the slightly more than 1,000 Squaxin Island tribal members who played host to the 2012 Paddle to Squaxin canoe journey and weeklong potlatch.
The Squaxins, almost to a person, worked long and hard to host this annual celebration of tribal culture that drew thousands of people to their reservation nestled amidst the seven South Sound inlets they call home.
For Charlene Krise, a cultural leader of the tribe, words could hardly express the joy and emotion she experienced throughout the eight-day cultural celebration, beginning with the arrival of nearly 100 tribal canoes July 29 in Budd Inlet.
“I felt like a child waiting for Christmas,” she said. “I got really emotional at the canoe landing. We just knew it was going to be something very big. Seeing all those canoes just reinforced that feeling. Culturally, we have these strong ties with other tribes, ties that know no borders. We could hardly contain ourselves. They were here and our arms were open.”
The emotions continued to run high all week long for Krise and her fellow tribal members as they showered gifts on their guests, served up to 5,000 dinners and breakfasts each day, and watched more than 50 tribal groups sing, dance and drum in a 30,000-square-foot tent that was a welcoming place for tribal and nontribal visitors alike.
“Seeing the children singing and dancing was so important to my spirit,” said Krise. “It gives me hope that our culture will carry on.”
This from a member of a tribe that the federal government once shunted off to Squaxin Island, a place with no running water or electricity. By the late 1960s, no Squaxin Island tribal members were left living on the island.
In the 1970s, the small, struggling tribe started to gain a little traction, acquiring the old Kamilche School as their tribal headquarters. Today that site is home to a tribal hotel and casino, one of many tribal enterprises that make the tribe the largest employer in Mason County.
“We are such a small tribe that struggled for so long to stay alive,” Krise recalls. “But our people held on. The teachings of our elders were strong enough to maintain our future. Now we have all this positive energy from hosting the canoe journey to carry us into the future.”
The past two decades have marked a cultural revival for the Squaxin Island Tribe. They have a tribal complex that includes a well-attended museum and cultural resource center. For the canoe journey, they built a canoe carving shed and a freshwater reflecting pool that’s already attracting frogs.
There’s also a Veterans’ Memorial that honors the nearly 90 tribal members who have served their country from World War I through the latest conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Each warrior is memorialized with his or her own bronze paddle placed amidst the seven pools that represent the seven inlets of the tribe’s native and accustomed places.
The memorial was the dream of tribal member Bruce Johnson, who died before his dream came true. His close friend, Squaxin member and Korean War veteran Glen Parker, worked for years to fulfill his friend’s dream.
Today, Parker, a retired electrical engineer who lives at Arcadia Point with a view of Squaxin Island where his father once lived, has a new dream for his tribe – a drug- and alcohol-free environment for the children.
“We formed a drug task force less than a year ago over concerns about drug use by our youth on the reservation,” he said.
The task force is still working on a strategic plan to steer kids away from drugs.
“The canoe journey is a step in the right direction,” Parker, 77, said of the drug- and alcohol-free event. “They’ve been learning a lot about their culture.”
Many tribes use the canoe journey for healing, making sure that tribal youths are welcomed into the canoe families and into the canoes, noted Swinomish tribal chairman Brian Cladoosby. The Swinomish, a tribe based near La Conner, hosted the 2011 canoe journey and brought four canoes and more than 100 tribal members to perform this year during the potlatch, including about 50 youths.
“Three years ago we had about 10 percent of what you see here today,” Cladoosby said of his tribe’s cultural renaissance.
Terri Capoeman, the daughter of a Squaxin Island tribal mother and Quinault Nation father, minces no words when talking about what it means to be a member of the Squaxin Island canoe family.
“If it wasn’t for the canoe journey and my canoe family, I’d be lost,” the 41-year-old single mother of six said.
“It’s been an honor hosting the canoe journey,” Capoeman said. “It’s powerful. It warms my heart. This tribe is growing stronger every day.”
Squaxin Island tribal member Joe Seymour, 38, participated in his first canoe journey in 2003. An artist, Seymour said hosting the canoe journey should pay cultural dividends for the tribe for years to come.
“For the children, it’s wonderful, providing a legacy of pride, especially when compared to the time the federal government tried to disband the tribe. Hopefully, the Squaxins will grow closer together.”firstname.lastname@example.org 360-754-5444