Now called the Lummi, these Coast Salish natives of Northwest Washington State and southern British Columbia inhabit a reservation just a few miles north of my hometown in Bellingham, WA. Dad used to take us girls in the summer to the Stommish celebration to see the traditional canoe races, watch the Bone Game and dancers (this is Raven), and eat delicious smoked or barbecued salmon. So this year, Thor and I decided to revisit the celebration. It’s the tribe’s way of welcoming visitors, including many natives from other tribes who bring their canoes and paddlers, as well as craftspeople, to share drumming, competitions, and story-telling. And, of course, to eat the mainstay fresh salmon of the season.
The totem poles are a living tradition, and Lummi’s tribal leader and master carver Jewell Praying Wolf James has carried it into critical contemporary issues. He carved healing poles for victims of the 9/11 attacks and drove them across the country to Washington, D.C., and New York, accompanied by tribal members and others. Recently he carved a new 22-foot pole to represent tribal opposition to a proposed coal export terminal on traditional sacred grounds. The Lummis have led awareness efforts to protect the beautiful environment here on the Salish Sea, and I join with countless others in applauding their work.
As James said of the new pole: “You know the average person really appreciates the totem pole and they love looking at it and touching it, but I think the greatest experience is when the children come forward. As they say, children are so innocent and they admire it and reach out and touch it. We’ve watched little children bless the pole themselves in their own ways. Those moments make the whole thing worth it because we’re trying to protect the environment for future generations.”
Back to the Stommish: The aroma of alder smoke and roasting salmon drew us toward the shoreline, where we were offered a delicious sample, amid some jokes about Thor’s height making him almost a totem pole.
The races for younger people were launching, and here are the young women at the starting line, with Lummi Island in the background. The canoes are hand-hewn from cedar logs following traditional methods. An elder next to me called out, “Blessings and strength to each of you!” as they started, and much cheering greeted each team as they returned to the finish.
We wandered the grounds and into a huge tent to watch the Bone Game. According to complicated rules and accompanied by drumming and rattling, the gamers hide or pass around markers (originally they were shaped bones) and try to trick the others. It’s an extended process, and I’ve never figured out how the winners are determined.
Then on to the crafts market, where vendors from different tribes offered their wares. One native vendor demonstrated to tourists the way to use a sage and cedar smudge stick for spiritual cleansing of home and self. Others offered paintings, drums, dried deer hooves for ceremonial rattles, or jewelry. Thor picked out these lovely handcrafted earrings for me (unfortunately the photo doesn’t do justice to the fine inlay).
Thank you to our native neighbors for their hospitality! “Tachel-sen!”