Saturday, May 29, 2010

Vacation Weekend, Day One: Blake Island

So, today we did something new and different: a Northwest luau at Tillicum Village on Blake Island. Janice had learned about this a while back and it sounded like fun, so we decided to give it a try. After all, why not compare the local area's native traditions with those of the Hawaiian luau we went to a few years back (2007, I think -- or was it 2006?). That time things started well but gave way to a torrential downpour that drenched us, drowned the torches, and made the performers' stage so slick the dancers eventually had to give up. Still, the food was great (before it got too soggy) and the whole event was definitely something I'd try again (hopefully on a dryer night).

For this one, we drove over to Tukwila Station and took the Sound Transit up to University Street (which, confusingly enough for non-Seattle-ites, is not part of the University District but 'Downtown' -- the university actually being on the other [north] side of downtown and somewhat to the east). From there we walked down to the waterfront (Pier 55), where we took an excursion boat over to Blake Island, just the other side of West Seattle's Alki Point. To while away the time the tour guide kept up a fairly interesting patter about the docks' history, the settlement of Alki Point and why they abandoned it to shift to what's now the Pioneer Square area, and a bit about Chief Seattle. A tribal dancer (part Makah, part Tsimshian) also displayed his blanket (a nice bright yellow), talked a bit about the area's native cultures, and performed a few moves. Kudos to them both for avoiding Tour Guide Humor and keeping it informative.

Once there, upon coming ashore outside the Longhouse we were greeted with mugs of warm clam chowder, which truly hit the spot. By tradition, you're supposed to throw the clamshells in it onto the path and stomp on them to crush them up, thus constantly renewing the path itself; I neatly stacked mine to the side, where I later saw some kids have the fun of playing giant on them. Then we went inside and poked around the giftshop side of the tribal longhouse until it was time for the meal; the most interesting thing here by far was the cooking area, where you cd watch the stacked wood in the flame pits cooking the salmon, which were in alder frames not in the fire but arranged upright in a circle around it. So that's how it's done -- not what I'd pictured at all. And soaking up some of that nice heat from behind the rail a few feet away felt pretty good too.

In the main room of the longhouse, we were escorted to our seats, from which we got up and went through the buffet line at the end opposite the performing area. Salad, brown bread, 'three bean salad' (I only counted two -- since when area 'cherry tomatoes' a bean?), rice with wild rice, some fruit, a stew with beef and venison and I think buffalo as well (don't think I've ever eaten venison before), and the main event: the fresh-cooked salmon. Plus waiting back at our tables we also each had a little berry-cake slice waiting for the desert. Add hot tea and it was quite a meal. I have to say it was the best salmon I've ever had. I used to eat a lot of fish back in the days when I went fishing a lot with my father and later with my grandmother, but fell off after they died -- I not only completely gave up fishing myself, having become too tender-hearted, but never really took to store-bought fish all that much. So if by contrast I'd say anyone who really is a big fish-eater really should try this place out; it's well worth the time and money.

After the meal things went dark and we got the dances. There were eight native performers, all of whom seemed to know their stuff. The costumes were good but I especially liked the bird-masks they used for the final number for the three bird-minions of the cannibal god; the clack! of their beaks were particularly effective. My favorite of all the dances came near the end: the dance of the Terrible Creature, a sort of wendigo-monster that rampaged about and somehow always eluded capture by disappearing whenever it was trapped. I guess with my predisposition towards fantasy I'm more partial to action and drama than to slow, ceremonial pieces, like the one where they displayed their blankets like male birds doing plumage-dances. The one thing I wish they'd done differently would have been to have had live music -- the prerecorded stuff was good but a bit remote from the actual-live-in-person dancing.

When it was all done, we had another chance to look around, which is when we looked through the little cultural museum. There were plenty of photos of what was apparently the biggest event to ever take place there: an economic summit hosted by President Clinton in 1993 and attended by all the Pacific Rim leaders: the premier of China, the prime minister of Japan, the Sultan of Brunei, the leaders of Australia and New Zealand, someone from Thailand, I think the President of the Philippines as well, and definitely representatives from Singapore and Hong Kong (this being before Hong Kong's re-incorporation back into China). Lots of photos from the event set against the same backdrops we were next to ourselves.

As the event was wrapping up, Janice and I went for a walk around the park -- not too far, lest we miss the boat, but far enough to get well and truly among the greenery. We also, just before setting out, saw a raccoon from the museum room's windows, v. deliberately making its way down the path towards the water. We'd planned to end up strolling around looking at the totem poles in from of the longhouse, but fell into conversation with a woman who works at the Longhouse store, part Dakota, part Crow, who had lots of stories about the old days, particularly those who 'never surrendered'. I can easily see the viewpoint that those who survived the American campaign against the Sioux from circa 1876 to 1890 and its aftermath wd never get over it, any more than might a survivor of the Holocaust.

The ride back was uneventful. So, a successful Feast Day, complete with a souvenir mug I brought back with a nice native american pattern on it (too bad I forgot to ask which tribe's art this was). I found myself wishing, on the way back, that the Duwamish wd get their act together and finally build that longhouse along the mouth of the Green River they've been talking about for years: as the people who lived on the land where I live now I'm naturally more interested in their culture than that of the neighboring tribes -- but, lo and behold, just now while checking to make sure I'd gotten the spelling of names like "Makah" and "Tsimshian" right, I discovered that the Duwamish Longhouse opened in 2009. Not much information available on their website (, but this will definitely go on the schedule for a local trip to make later this summer.

--John R.

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