LA CONNER, Wash. - When La Conner Mayor Eron Berg prepared an ordinance to declare the fourth Monday in September Native American Day for the 870 residents of this coastal town, little did he know it was an act the Swinomish tribe had been waiting for for years.
Separated by a short span of water, the tribe and the town have, over the years, also been separated by differences of opinion on environmental issues, utilities maintenance and all the other little misunderstandings that crop up between different cultures.
And it didn't help that this summer's inflammatory GOP convention resolution calling for the termination of non-republican forms of government on Indian reservations was sponsored by a local resident, John Fleming.
But all that was forgotten on a day two groups of people joined in a celebration honoring Native American culture in general and the Swinomish tribe in particular.
Swinomish chairman Brian Cladoosby and several elders paddled across the channel and were formally welcomed at the town's docks by Mayor Berg. Tribal members then joined the mayor and council in a parade lead by Lummi tribal dancers. Welcoming addresses by Mayor Berg and elders of the town were followed by canoe races by Swinomish youth and a keynote address by Billy Frank Jr., director of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
"La Conner's recognition of Native American Day reflects the kind of mutually respectful relationship we want to have with our non-Native neighbors," said Cladoosby. "By coming together to share our culture , we hope to reinforce the relations that will be the foundation of a better life for all our children."
The celebration lasted all day and well into the night. Elders of the tribe spoke about their lives growing up on the reservation and about the history of the area. An evening celebration of unity was followed by a traditional salmon feast provided by the tribe.
"It was wildly successful," said Berg. "There were so many smiling faces and happy people and so many kind words were said. There were hundreds of people who came to this and participated at various points in the day. It was amazing to see how something that seemed so simple was something that people have been waiting for for a long time."
Berg said the idea of the town declaring Native American Day a legal holiday came to him as a way to unify the two cultures.
He also saw it as a way for the local school districts, which contain an average of one-third Swinomish students, to acknowledge the local tribal children. Having grown up in Hawaii where schools include classes in Hawaiian language, culture and history, he said he was surprised how La Conner area schools contain nothing in the curriculum that pertain to the local Native children's culture.
"I was thinking about how elementary classes start with a whole bunch of Swinomish kids and the high school classes end up with two or three that graduate," Berg said.
The mayor said he hopes local schools will participate in next year's celebration. He also hopes this will be the start of a greater awareness and inclusion of Swinomish culture in the school's curriculums.
"Maybe that would make the kids feel like it was more their school," he said.
Swinomish tribal representatives and town council members are already planning for next year's celebration.
"They're talking about having canoe races all day long next year and more traditional Indian dancing," said Susan Wilbur, vice chairwoman of the tribe. "They also want to approach the school and have the school closed down that day at the committee's recommendation."
At this point, everybody is still basking in the warm glow of mutual respect and acceptance that was generated by the celebration. Berg said he was pleased by the town's response to the festivities. But he said the best compliment came at the end of the day while he was helping clean up after the closing ceremony.
"One of the tribe's senators said, 'You know it's a success, Eron, when the elders are here 'til the end of the day.' And they were. They were."