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Paddling forward with new words

LITTLE BOSTON — It was a night when emotions ran high for Port Gamble S’Klallam tribal members, literally and in spirit.

Last weekend’s “Night of Song,” was filled with events that symbolized the tribe’s effort to reinstate its culture that has been slowly lost in years past — until recently.

The Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe held a celebration for 10 songs the canoe club has been informally using for more than a decade. It is tradition for tribes to hold a such events in which new songs are “brought out” or recognized as being that particular tribe’s own verses. Through this ceremony, Port Gamble S’Klallam members have learned the protocol for song celebrations and plan on having more in the future, said event organizer Mary Jones.

The tribe also welcomed back two ancient paddles that were found by a non-native near the Port Gamble Indian Reservation more than 30 years ago.

An important part of the ceremony involved the four witnesses who attended the event.

“A witness is responsible for remembering what is happening and why it is so important for the people hosting the party,” said witness Guy Capoeman of the Quinault Nation.

Other witnesses Saturday night were Connie McCloud of Puyallup Tribe, Lester Green of Makah Tribe and Edgar Charlie of the Ahousaht Nation from British Columbia. If asked, the witnesses must tell others what happened, and if necessary, teach the songs, Capoeman said.

Another part of the job is for the witnesses to go back to their respective tribes and tell their people what happened and how the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe is doing.

“Witnesses are as old as oral history itself,” Capoeman said, noting the survival of the knowledge of the culture depends on witnesses. “If we didn’t have witnesses, a lot of what we do wouldn’t exist.”

With the songs, one man has been able to help the tribe re-learn its culture.

When the tribe started its canoe club in 1989, it didn’t have any songs or regalia for canoe ceremonies. So Jake Jones, a Port Gamble S’Klallam elder and tribal council member, asked well-known artist and songwriter Duane Pasco to teach the tribe the proper ceremonial procedures and songs.

While Pasco is non-native, he grew up around Native Americans and is known around the country for his Native American art.

Several of the songs presented Saturday night were written by Pasco for the tribe or for individuals.

Part of the significance of the songs is that they explain the tribe’s connections with the earth, Capoeman said.

“Even today we have those — we’re working with wood,” he said. “We fish, hunt, gather shellfish, pray. We have kept those connections strong. In this day and age, we still have those.”

McCloud said the act of being a witness was particularly meaningful Saturday night.

“It’s really significant to be able to do this today in our culture,” she said about celebrating the songs. “It means our culture is alive.”

But for a moment during the ceremony, the tribe stepped back in time.

The S’Klallam Tribe formally received two ancient paddles that were dug up on the reservation by two non-natives more than three decades ago.

In 1959, a man named Bill Brown was logging near the reservation’s cemetery when his son, Bob, saw the tips of two canoes sticking out of the ground and dug them up. They were then stored and forgotten.

Bob Brown found the paddles again in 1990 and took them home to Tacoma.

Raymond McCloud, a member of the Puyallup Tribe, heard about the paddles and asked Bob if they could be returned to the S’Klallam Tribe.

In a ceremony Saturday night, McCloud returned the paddles to Tribal Chairman Ron Charles and tribal council member Jake Jones.

The tribe then honored Brown and his family at the event by giving them a new S’Klallam paddle.

The tribe doesn’t have any old canoes or paddles, said Jake Jones, so members never knew what their old tools for fishing and traveling looked like, except through pictures, which made the ceremony even more significant.

“The paddles we are bringing back are a symbol of the traditions we are bringing back,” said Oliver Jones, who led the evening’s events.

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