Monday, July 5, 2010
Notes from Lummi
Returned Friday evening from that youth trip to the Lummi reservation just outside Bellingham. It was a good week -- good for the kids, and good, I hope, for the people whose yards were weeded and fireworks stands were painted.
We had a chance to experience the Lummi canoe culture firsthand. As mentioned previously, the Native American cultures of the Pacific Northwest relied heavily upon the inland waters that trace through the landscape of the region for their livelihoods, transportation and communication (they even ventured out onto the open sea). While the overwhelming force of mainstream American society has curtailed these traditional patterns, tribes like the Lummi have taken significant steps in recent years to renew and hold onto this vital part of their cultural heritage.
Accordingly, the Lummi and many other tribes participate annually in an event called "Tribal Journeys," during which groups of canoe paddlers from various tribes travel from reservation to reservation, sharing songs and stories and regaining the lived experience of a long canoe voyage. The Lummi were preparing to head out toward the middle of this week for this year's Tribal Journey.
Last Wednesday, several of the song leaders and canoe paddlers came to sing their songs for us. These are the songs that help power their journeys. They tell of tribal lore and traditional themes, but they are also a living, evolving history of the tribe. New songs address the struggles of life on a reservation in the twenty-first century and the triumphs of helping modern Native Americans negotiate the shoals of "outside" and regain their heritage. Some young Lummi even danced for my kids, who were their peers in age -- brave kids! I was struck by the power of their dances; it is easy to see how Europeans would have been alarmed by the strength and physicality of young warriors when they first encountered Native tribes centuries ago:
The Lummi have a wonderful saying: once you share a meal with us, you are family. They demonstrated this the next day, when they invited the kids into their canoes for a trip around the bay. They shared a prayer with the kids on the water that had them talking long afterward about the way the Lummi see the spiritual qualities of all creation. They enjoyed the silence on the water, the seabirds and small crabs. I am sure it is an experience they will never forget.
And when they got back to shore? Well, there's one more set of Lummi traditions. First, demonstrate your respect for the canoe after your first journey. And second? Never call it a boat...