Days of dancing and discovering

SUQUAMISH — The weekend’s celebration in downtown Suquamish wasn’t just about enjoying frybread, watching the flying colors of beautifully ornate costumes during dance competitions or the quick strokes of the canoe racers — it was about honoring a fearless leader who is world-renowned for his work in the tiny peninsula of Kitsap County.

Members of local and regional tribes and the public gathered on the celebration grounds in Downtown Suquamish this weekend for Chief Seattle Days, a 91-year-old celebration that still creates high emotions and competitive adrenaline.

The memorial service for Chief Seattle at his gravesite behind St. Peter’s Catholic Church included a group of singers from Japan, who performed with kocarinas, small flute-like instruments carved out of a tree that survived the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The singers and the group leader, Kurotaro Kurosaka, were on hand to perform opening songs for the memorial service.

Kurosaka and his group were invited to play some eight months after they performing the opening prayer and song at the Hiroshima Flame Interfaith Pilgrimage Walk. That event started at the gravesite in January, and then headed east to New York City. The walk was inspired by a Native American who saw the flame, which has been kept alive as a symbol of hope after the bombing. It still burns today in Hiroshima.

“When you do a flame walk like that, it keeps the connections to the Native American community (that were) made... keeps the relationship alive,” said Dave Harrison, who organized the Washington State portion of the walk.

Leading the service were Gene Jones and Suquamish Tribal Chairman Bennie Armstrong, who then recognized the Elders, local dignitaries and fellow tribe members and non-tribal, and thanked everyone who came to this service.

“It strengthens our people in our community that people came to honor Chief Seattle,” Jones said.

Armstrong reminded guests during the service and later at the pow-wow of the future of the “Lands In The Sky” totem pole that is located on the corner of Suquamish Way and South Street, overlooking the reservation’s downtown area and Agate Pass. The pole was carved by Joe Hillaire in the 1960s, and travelled around the country, even making a visit to New York City’s Time Square when it was finished, to educate people about the coastal natives. One of the wings of the bird at the top of the 40-year-old totem pole fell off recently and after being inspected, the entire statue was found to be very rotten inside, Armstrong explained. The pole will be taken down for further inspection by the Tribal Council, which will either decide to replace the wing or put up another pole.

“In 2002, you came to the Chief Seattle Days Celebration,” Armstrong told everyone. “I want you to remember you saw the (totem) pole. You were here when it was still standing.”

Food booths and arts and crafts took over celebration grounds, as well as a salmon bake that sent wafting smells of fresh grilled fish across the grounds as drum circles ensued and members from the various tribes prepared for the Grand Entry and inter-tribal dancing. Canoe races got underway, with the occasional squawk of the airhorn, sending the single, double, six, and eleven men, women and “buckskin” (paddlers 16 and under) crews paddling furiously from the boat ramp to Indianola and back for cash prizes. “Geromino II” of the Sannich Tribe from British Columbia, continued its reign as the strongest canoe racers on the water by capturing the most wins.

The canoe racing club from Sannich was started by Evan Morris and his wife in the 1970s and consists mainly of his children and grandchildren.

“We’re proud of what they are doing, what they accomplished,” Morris said, as two of his grandsons swiftly crossed the finish line in first and second place in the buckskins singles competition.

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