Thursday, September 29, 2016

Sketches from Salt Lake: Another order of things

Tillicum Village

By Geoffrey Dean

Two Saturdays ago, I joined my musical host in the State of Washington, the brilliant and thought-provoking keyboard artist Byron Schenkman, and his spouse Tom, on an Argosy Cruise to Seattle’s Blake Island – “to walk in Chief Seattle’s footsteps,” as the Argosy website puts it.
    It was Tom’s idea, and neither he nor Byron had been before. Forty-five minutes from downtown Seattle across Puget Sound, we were treated to a Native American experience at Tillicum Village.
    It started with a welcoming clam drink on the path from the dock, which path is composed entirely of clam shells that had been crushed underfoot by past visitors. On the ferry over, our guide, Haida, had carefully instructed us about the clam shell-crushing custom and the other key components of the experience that awaited us, including the food, woodwork, and art. He presented them not as random pleasures or objects, but as intrinsic elements of an ancient, still-living culture. A native American himself, Haida emphasized our status as welcomed guests in an environment that his forebears had long since learned to live at one with, pointing out that “tillicum“ (or “tilikum”) is an inter-tribal word for “friend” understood by Native Americans of 30 or 40 different tribes that interacted in the Pacific Northwest.
    This sense of being part of and working with the natural world resonated throughout the experience. Haida gave the example of how boxes were made, not by cutting separate pieces of cedar for each side, but by steaming a single piece of wood until folds at 90% angles could be achieved. The placing of the salmon on vertical poles was more than a proven cooking method; it signified a certain relationship with and respect for the fish. During the post-lunch dance performance, we were encouraged to applaud after each ritual dance and told that this applause was culturally important for the dancers not as a sign of approval, but as a giving of energy and courage needed for them to continue.
    I was very taken by Haida’s story-telling ability, by his fluid interweaving of narrative and interpretation. On the way to the island he told the story of how Raven stole water, and on the way back, of how Raven created low and high tides. I’m quite sure I had heard the water story (or one similar to it) before, because it also explains how Raven originally had white feathers. So it is a story of transformation, like the incredible cedar mask at Tillicum Village that I naively described as “a mask within a mask within mask” before noticing that it was labeled “transformation mask.” (Such masks often have long beaks, and the wearer pulls a rope mechanism to rhythmically slam the beak shut as he dances.) The moral of the story of the tides concerns Raven’s discovering what his place in the world is, as someone who upsets the current order of things. I think that could be extended by adding, to effect positive change, although there is an underhanded mischievousness and self-centeredness to Raven’s methods and motives that Haida also emphasized in his telling.
    I took away from the experience a reminder that all of the created objects, such as the totem poles, stem from long traditions and have symbolic meanings that my enthusiasm for the craftsmanship and photogenic carved creatures leaves uncomprehended unless I inquire more deeply. I also took away a challenge to question my own methods and motives, my own way of connecting to and operating within the world. Thought of as questions, they are perhaps these:

What is your place in the world?
Why do you do what you do? What do your rituals signify?
How can you more meaningfully and responsibly connect with your environment? How can you “upset the order of things” in a positive way?

Copyright © 2016 by Geoffrey Dean


  1. Delightful to have another column honoring Native Americans. The first appeared last Sunday, "Sustainable Agriculture in Native America," by Christopher-Joseph Ravnopolski-Dean.

    1. ...and another from which we can extract reminders how to do and be better....

  2. Lived in Bremerton for 14 years. We camped on the other side of the Island a lot. I remember when they built the Indian village. They used to cook fish over an open pit. God's country when the sun shines---both days.

    1. Ed, I love the thought that you often camped out on the island that my son recently visited. Thanks for registering the fact.