Canoes head for Suquamish, Chief Seattle's gravesite

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NEAH BAY, Washington – Native American Indian youth are voyaging in their dugout canoes from throughout the Pacific Northwest to the town of Suquamish, gravesite of Chief Seattle, for the 20th annual Tribal Canoe Journey, Aug. 3-8.

Polly Debari, a Makah Tribal Tour Guide, told the World she and her family plan to join the festivities. Standing on a platform overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the farthest Northwest corner of the lower-48 states, Debari told a group of visiting Baltimore school teachers the annual canoe journey is an inspiration to the tribes, an “alcohol and drug-free” celebration of her people’s ancient history and culture.

Ten canoes are coming up the Pacific Coast and into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, including dugouts from the Quinault, Hoh, Quileute and Makah nations. The handsome cedar dugouts replicate the vessels that once plied these waters in a highly developed trade network among the Pacific Northwest Indians. Some of the dugouts, more than 80 feet long, were designed to carry cargo.

The Makah, Debari said, ventured in their dugouts into the Pacific hunting whales, a staple of their diet. She pointed to Tatoosh Island, just offshore in the Pacific Ocean, site of a lighthouse built in 1857. “It is a special place for the Makah,” she said. “We held potlatches on Tatoosh Island every year. We smoked salmon on the island.”

The Ozettes, one of five tribes of the Makah nation, lived about 30 miles south of Neah Bay in Ozette village on the ocean beach overshadowed by towering bluffs. A disastrous mudslide engulfed the village one night centuries ago, triggered, geologists believe, by an earthquake. It sealed the victims and their belongings in a “shroud of mud.” Archaeological excavations on the Ozette Village site began in 1947, and in 1966, the Makah Tribal Council gave Washington State University (WSU) permission to expand the excavation. But the WSU team became distracted by other projects until torrential rains washed away mud and exposed a treasure-trove of artifacts in the winter of 1970. The site is now compared to Pompeii buried, suddenly, in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The artifacts recovered from Ozette are housed in the splendid Makah Tribal Museum in Neah Bay.

“More than 55,000 artifacts were recovered at Ozette,” Debari said. “I spent a summer as an intern at the Smithsonian in Suitland, Maryland, helping process artifacts from the Makah Tribe in the Smithsonian’s collection.”

Mudslides were not the only disasters that befell the Makah, she said. When the white settlers arrived, there were 6,000 Makahs. Smallpox wiped out all but 400 of them, she said. The Treaty of Neah Bay made no provision  recognizing the Makah’s ancestral claim to Ozette. But 64 Makahs refused to leave Ozette to live in Neah Bay, so finally in 1893, President Grover Cleveland signed an Executive Order creating the Ozette Reservation. The last permanent residents left Ozette in 1917, drawn by the convenience of life in Neah Bay. It is now a seasonal village site for the Makah that is accessible only on foot through Olympic National Park.

One of the most oppressive policies enforced by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Debari said, was the Indian Boarding Schools. The Indian students were physically beaten if they spoke their own language and were systematically stripped of their culture. “My father ran away from the Boarding School,” Debari said. “My generation is the first not to attend a boarding school. We have our own tribal school K through 12 in Neah Bay, now,” she said.

Debari said she is the mother of six children, foster mother of two, and a grandmother. “My kids have all grown up in the Tribal Canoe Journeys. They are going to be able to negotiate together because they are all friends. They know their families. They all paddled together.”

With a wry smile she added, that her youngest child, 14, “tells me he is too old to join the paddle. But we leave Tuesday to join the Paddle to Suquamish.”

Driving back through Neah Bay, we stopped in front of the Makah Tribal Youth Center. A mural is painted on the façade, “Rest in Paradise,” with images of three Makah youth, “Spra, Ronnie, and T.J.” Beside their portraits is the message, “Stay Drug and Alcohol Free.” A young woman leaving the center told this reporter the three Makah youths died in separate incidents involving substance abuse. Combating that scourge is one of the main purposes of the annual canoe journeys.

The crews paddle the dugouts during the day, an arduous struggle against wind, currents and tides along the Pacific Coast, into the Strait, down Admiralty Inlet into Puget Sound. Others travel south from British Columbia and north from the lower Puget Sound and Hood Canal. This year, members of a tribe from New Zealand are joining the Paddle to Suquamish as well as a crew from Hawaii.

The crews of “pullers” are greeted at towns and cities along the way. They ask for permission to come ashore and are welcomed with feasting, dancing, drumming, poetry and story-telling during their overnight stays. As many as 1,000 people are expected for the welcoming ceremony on Hollywood Beach in downtown Port Angeles at about noon July 29.