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Lummi hosts largest potlatch in 70 years

Five days of cultural activities close out Intertribal Canoe Journey

LUMMI INDIAN NATION, Wash. - Young children from the Tulalip Tribes danced to a song about honoring elders and remembering where they come from; and the significance of the moment was not lost on former Lummi Chairman Darrell Hillaire.

''History and memory,'' Hillaire said, nodding toward the children. ''That's our future.''

Indeed, 100 years from now, the dancers' grandchildren will speak of this time in smokehouse gatherings and teachers will tell of this time in classrooms. They'll tell of the time when 68 canoe families from First Nations in Alaska, British Columbia, Oregon and Washington converged here for a five-day gathering and potlatch - Lummi's largest potlatch in 70 years.

Lummi Indian Nation hosted the conclusion of the largest-ever Intertribal Canoe Journey July 30 to Aug. 5. Canoe teams, or families, traveled the traditional highways of their ancestors to get here; the northernmost, Bella Coola, started on the journey July 7 with overnight visits to First Nations along the way.

This year's gathering was themed ''Return of the Potlatch.'' The five days of cultural events included traditional games; the traditional wedding of a Kwa'kwa'ka'waxw First Nation bride, Gloria Walkus, and a Lummi groom, Steve Wilson; and feasting, dancing, singing and gift-giving all week.

The word ''potlatch'' is a Chinook Jargon word meaning ''to give.'' For centuries, the potlatch has been a system of social contact; of sharing and distributing resources; and of formalizing, through the witness of those in attendance, the bestowing of inherited names or privileges, of solemnizing a marriage and of honoring relatives that have passed. It is accompanied by feasting, competitions and sharing songs and dances.

Most potlatches include traditional religious practices and are not open to the public. So at Lummi, the public had a rare opportunity to witness a

millennia-old event that is central to the Northwest Coast First Peoples' way of life - where the core teachings of honor, love, sharing and caring are played out, where traditions that hold the fabric of a culture together are reinforced.

Those in attendance were served breakfast and dinner daily; the first day, Lummi prepared and served 3,000 pounds of salmon. Each day, one by one, canoe families shared songs and dances, and leaders told stories associated with the songs and dances. Gifts were given to honor elders, tribal leaders and veterans. Individuals were gifted to honor their generosity and work.

For those who remembered when potlatches were illegal - in Canada, until 1951; in the United States, until 1934 - during the forced-assimilation era, the ''Return of the Potlatch'' was affirmation that the way of life survived and continues to survive.

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''My spiritual cup is full,'' said a teary-eyed Fred Lane, Paddle to Lummi director. ''These are tears for the happiness we're sharing here.''

The stories are fresh in his mind of when it was against the law to attend potlatches, a form of oppression that he saw continued when his father built the aquaculture program at Lummi despite threats from those opposed to Native fishing rights.

''If they could see us, singing songs that were sung 200 years ago,'' Lane said of the ancestors. ''We haven't given those up.''

Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, beamed as he looked out over the thousands of people crowding the beach at Lummi July 30.

''It is one of the greatest days in our lifetime,'' he said. ''Look over there. All the babies, the kids swimming, people are happy. We should be happy all the time. Look at all the good people, all the good energy, people hugging each other and saying hello.''

Hosting the journey conclusion and potlatch was no small feat. Hundreds of Native and non-Native volunteers recruited more volunteers and hoped to raise at least $350,000 to support the event. Lane said 24 committees arranged hospitality for elders, prepared and served food, managed camping sites and took care of the hundreds of other necessary daily details.

Volunteers said they served between 3,500 and 4,000 dinners - up from the expected 1,700 - each day from 4 - 10 p.m.

Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman said he expected Suquamish to begin making preparations to host the 2009 Canoe Journey as soon as the 2007 event was finished. He said Suquamish is raising money to build a longhouse in which to host daily events. He expects the cost of hosting to be about $1 million.

On the final day, Lummi gave hundreds of blankets, as well as cedar hats, cedar headbands, commemorative posters, dolls, drums, earrings, keychains, necklaces, paddle covers and red cloth headbands with Coast Salish designs. The sister of Lummi's chairman personally made 100 bead necklaces for the Lower Elwha Klallam's Pink Paddle Canoe Family, which made the journey in honor of cancer patients, survivors and those who have passed on. All told, everyone in attendance received a gift.

Children produced many of the handmade items that were given, to nurture artistic skills and a giving spirit. In some cases, giving was done to honor someone; young people from the Nuxalk First Nation gave small bouquets of flowers with cedar strands in memory of an elder who had passed away.

The day was capped off by Lummi's gift of a story pole, topped by a small canoe, to the Cowichan First Nation, which will host the 2008 Canoe Journey. The pole and canoe were carved by Lummi master carver Jewell James.

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