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'Catching the Dreams of our Ancestors'

Lummi artists return home for annual cultural festival

SAN JUAN ISLAND, Wash. - Kurt Russo said a Lummi man once told him he shook the hand of a man who shook the hand of a man who signed the Point Elliott Treaty on Jan. 22, 1855.

Like other First Peoples, the Lummi have a generational view of time. In other words, 1855 was not 152 years ago - it was only two handshakes ago.

Likewise for the Lummi presence on the San Juan Islands. Only two handshakes ago, the Lummi occupied at least 10 villages in the San Juans, including P'kweekh-eel-wuhlh on San Juan Island, believed to be the original home of the Lummi and the Songish through Sweh-tuhn, the first man.

Archaeological evidence at some of those village sites show occupation dating 5,000 years; a few artifacts, from a collection of more than 1 million pieces, are housed in a permanent exhibit at the National Park Service's American Camp visitor center.

Bill James, retired coordinator of the Lummi language program at Northwest Indian College, said in a 2005 interview that the Lummi were forced off the islands because of smallpox, treaties and the move to reservations.

''Our people originally lived in this area,'' he said then. ''We left our ancestral burial grounds. But we know where we are from. We know our roots.''

So when 20 or more Lummi artists, writers, performers and storytellers visit San Juan Island July 20 - 24 for the Lummi Arts Festival, it will be a return home.

The festival, titled ''Catching the Dreams of our Ancestors,'' will consist of several events held concurrently at different venues in Friday Harbor. It is organized by the Lummi Ventures Program and funded in part by a grant from the Northwest Area Foundation. Admission to each event it free.

Lummi was one of three tribal nations in the United States selected in 2003 to participate in a 10-year, $6 million poverty reduction program. The festival is designed to give artists exposure; the first festival on the islands was in 2005 in Eastsound, Orcas Island.

''These artists are highly talented, but they don't market it,'' said Russo, of the Lummi Ventures Program. ''This festival will give exposure to the breadth and depth of Lummi culture. It's not just carving and canoes.''

The festival will spotlight basketry, clothing, graphic arts, jewelry and mixed media, as well as carving.

Lummi Vice Chairman Willie Jones said he hopes people come away with a better understanding of the roots of Lummi art.

''A lot of artwork is based on a way of life from the past,'' Jones said. ''It's artwork now, but back then it was a necessity.''

For example, cedar provided fiber for baskets, clothing, fishing nets and regalia, as well as wood for canoes and houses.

''It's really spiritual to us,'' Jones said of cedar. ''That's one of the things about our psychology - we didn't separate our spirituality from our emotions and our physical being. It was one.''

Clarissa Young is president of the Lummi Cultural Arts Association and is known for her beadwork, basket weaving and regalia making. She hopes the beauty and diversity of various art forms will get as much of the spotlight as the more attention-getting bone and wood carvings.

''You can't get any more traditional than a cedar basket. Our clothing was cedar, everything was cedar,'' she said.

Participants in the festival include Lummi master carver Jewell Praying Wolf James, a lineal descendant of Sealth and leader of the House of Tears Carvers. James and the House of Tears carved healing poles for New York City, Shanksville, Pa., and the Pentagon, the sites of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

For information about accommodations, contact the San Juan Island Chamber of Commerce at (360) 378-5240 or visit

Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at