Only 15 minutes from downtown Seattle, Tillicum Village—on an island only accessible by boat—is practically another world away.
As technical and demanding as a day of boating might be, it requires very little historical knowledge to be enjoyed. Fishermen denote the passing of years in the movement of hot spots, and long-range cruisers might pass by a memorable anchorage and bemoan how much it has changed for the worse in the ensuing decade—but that is a very different kind of history. What I’m referring to is cruising to uncover a shared or forgotten past, to explore a new place with an open and inquisitive mind. That kind of cruising tends to deepen the experience in my opinion, adding a magnetism not easily ignored. I’ll be the first to admit that you don’t need any more context than a heavy hand on the throttle and an open chartplotter to appreciate sunshine and a little sea spray on your face. Then again, you wouldn’t travel to Elba without knowing who was exiled there, or explore Antarctica without at least acknowledging Shackleton’s ill-fated expedition.
Blake Island is another one of those places—the kind that enriches the curious traveler. Due west of Seattle, approximately 15 miles from downtown but practically a world away, lies the island in the middle of Puget Sound. On a clear day, standing on the island’s easternmost shore, you can barely make out the city’s skyline: a distant reminder of civilization. No roads or bridges connect this place to the outside world, and if you didn’t know of its treasure, you could cruise right past and be none the wiser. A tangle of well-worn trails crisscross the island’s 476-acre state park, but the majority of its visitors—over 100,000 people a year—travel here explicitly to enjoy a salad bar and sit in a darkened longhouse for five hours, before piling back into a ferry. For some tourists, this will be the culmination of their trip.
Tillicum Village is a Seattle tourist destination much in the same way the Space Needle is, albeit with one major caveat. Owned and operated by Argosy Cruises, the Tillicum Excursion (as it has come to be known) is imperative in keeping the traditions of the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest from slipping into obscurity—or worse, undermined by a half-baked superficiality, like a knockoff totem purchased at a tchotchke shop. A rare blend of digital and analog storytelling and masked performances celebrate the distinct cultures of a fiercely independent maritime people. The longhouse awaits guests on an exposed hillside surrounded by a dense thicket of conifers. Large, weathered totem poles stand like sentries around the property. Inside the longhouse—a replica, mind you, with an obligatory gift shop—spirits move across a massive projection screen, the largest of its kind in the world, save for a similar one in Las Vegas. Incongruous? Maybe. And yet the Tillicum Excursion is primarily aimed at educating kids, and the uninformed, who sometimes marvel at the fact that there are populations of Native Americans still alive in the U.S.
I was invited by Argosy Cruises and Inventech Marine Solutions (IMS), the manufacturers of Life Proof Boats, to get a taste of the Tillicum Excursion and the daily commute of its staff, who will soon be taking one of Life Proof’s hard-nosed utility vessels to work every day across Puget Sound. (IMS is an R&D facility that founded Life Proof Boats in 2015.) This was a nice alternative to the ferry, which can accommodate 300 people, but is no match for the speed and comfort of the vaguely militaristic, foam-collared Life Proof Boats that are built in Seattle’s backyard of Bremerton, Washington.
Departing from the city’s seaport, the Life Proof 31 GT skims across the water, its deep-V aluminum hull and twin 300-hp Yamahas making short work of our journey. I look down at the chartplotter, which appears to be malfunctioning. Seattle falls away in our rear view, a glittering mass of high-rises reflecting the midday sun on this unusually bright spring day. I turn to the thirtysomething CEO of IMS, Micah Bowers, with more than a little skepticism. “It’s reading a depth of 600 feet here. That can’t be right.” He smiles. “There are deep ravines like that all over Puget Sound. Welcome to the Pacific Northwest.”
A top end of 44 knots gobbles up the minutes. While there is plenty of dockage on the island, Bowers and I decide to go the old-fashioned route: beaching the 31 on a deserted stretch of shoreline—the same way Suquamish warriors would beach their war canoes here in the summer months. I lace up my hiking boots. Lowering the boat’s folding bow door, I jump down onto wet sand and try to get my bearings. From what I can tell, the only other sojourners here are gnarled pieces of driftwood scattered along the shoreline. It doesn’t matter that you can still make out the city skyline or spy footpaths through the brush. My gaze wanders to the snow-capped peak of Mount Rainier in the distance, at once both wondrous and vaguely threatening, that fills me with an innate understanding of my microscopic relationship with the cosmos.
Tillicum Village, however, is not a place to come seeking solitude. My arrival for the matinee lines up with a fresh batch of show-goers deposited by ferry: excited kids, families and a few tour groups. Wearing matching shirts for the occasion, one of the largest groups in attendance are members of the Snohomish tribe. The Snohomish count themselves part of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, a sovereign tribe residing north of Everett on a reservation roughly the size of Manhattan. Thousands of years ago, Blake Island served as a no man’s land, with no single group laying claim to its waters. Today, Tillicum Village and the adjoining state park are the closest the land has come to reverting to the status quo as a collective space.
A line forms along the broken clamshell-strewn path leading up to the longhouse. Each person stops at a big pot, and is doled out a mug of warm clam nectar. On this chilly spring afternoon, the piping hot broth warms the chest like few things can. After finishing the contents, we are encouraged to dump the clam shells onto the pathway and give them a hearty stomp. As far as I can tell, this is a tradition unique to Tillicum Village, with no bearing on historical etiquette, but it’s a big hit amongst the children in our group. After we’ve finished stomping, an announcement is made that people can come back and fill their mugs with seconds. Together, we cheer.
It’s easy to give yourself to the experience, to allow yourself to be transported, at least mentally, to a time before outboard-powered boats, glimmering cities and reservations. But imagining war canoes paddling to the island comes with a price, at least for this show-goer; a feeling of irrepressible white guilt bubbles to the surface. Tillicum Village is by no means a self-contained museum: History is present no matter which way you turn. Not 20 miles away lies the site of Old Man House—one of the largest longhouses in the area—that was razed by the U.S. Army in 1872 in the vague interest of “assimilation.” In the resulting decades, young children were removed from their homes and sent to boarding schools, where they were prohibited from speaking their native language. Potlatches—large giving feasts unique to the Pacific Northwest, when ceremonial masks were donned and performances given—were outlawed. Masks were confiscated. Ceremonial objects burned. And chiefs and noblewomen jailed for simply practicing their culture.
While waiting for the show to begin, half-consciously observing others finishing their mugs of clam broth, I wonder if our group’s non-Indigenous guests are familiar with this dark side of history. By the docks, I meet a nice retired couple who have arrived from Kirkland, Washington, tying up their 41-foot Camano at one of the slips in front. They plan to spend the day hiking, and lovingly refer to the Northwest as a “boater’s paradise.” Do they know the history of the Native people in this region? And if they do, how much does it impact their boating?
Frank Mather would say tradition and respect are one and the same. The cultural coordinator and master of ceremonies for Tillicum Village, Mathers is part Makah (who refer to themselves as Kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx, or “people of the point” on Neah Bay, Washington) and part Tsimshian (who hail from Alaska and British Columbia). Soft spoken and well-studied, Mathers has the no-small task of teaching a new crop of young dancers the intricate movements of tribal performances. And he’s not alone. On reservations across the region, there are vestigial groups working to revive the Lushootseed language, a common tongue with different dialects spoken throughout the area. The discriminatory policies, enacted by the government in the late 1800s and not repealed for another 50 years, were meant to replace tribal culture with a more “civilized” way of life. They nearly succeeded. The fact they did not is a tribute to the resiliency of these people.
Inside the longhouse, Mathers introduces me to the other performers: a trio of young, sturdy men. Their ropy muscles are the result of wearing large wooden masks onstage as many as three times a day, seven days a week at the height of the season. The most challenging mask in their repertoire is Huxhukw, or Big Beak, a man-eating bird in the Kwakwaka’wakw tradition. At 6 feet long, the 55-pound mask comes with a rope that wrenches the beak open and shut with a loud clap. “Even though you’re only wearing it for two and a half minutes on stage, it feels like 23 minutes,” says Mathers.
“It’s my third year doing it and I don’t feel like I’ve mastered it yet,” says Fred Peña, who plays Big Beak. “And I’ve been doing it for the entire three years I’ve been here.”
Aside from Mathers, who was raised by the Tsimshian Raven clan on his father’s side, none of the dancers are directly descended from tribes in the region. But Mathers doesn’t discriminate in who he teaches, so long as they are respectful of the heritage. Each dance is “owned” by a tribal family, and every dancer—even Mathers—must get explicit permission from the families to perform them on stage. Many, if not all, of the dances are recreations that would be given at a potlatch: when storytellers, clad in distinct regalia, would bring to life by firelight tales of the trickster Raven, of great floods and Sasquatch, the cedar tree and the terrible, supernatural creature known as Thunderbird. “This is an introduction to our visiting guests, to kind of help open their eyes,” Mathers tells me. “This is only the beginning.”
After finishing a salmon dinner, expertly cooked on cedar planks, and watching the rousing performances—some narrated by a floating hologram of the famous storyteller Roger Fernandes—the guests depart, and I with them. The return trip aboard the Life Proof 31 is just as fast as our arrival, and we get back to Seattle’s docks with time to spare: a nice commute for a weary dancer, but barely enough time at all to ruminate on the ever-changing ways these cultures have managed to survive.
I arrive in time for the afternoon bustle: honking cars, professionals hunting for happy hour, the shudder of jackhammers. The spell of the island is broken. On my walk, I pass the source of the construction noise: crews are removing a concrete viaduct that, once demolished, will give the waterfront a much-needed facelift. Out with the old; it seems the way of things nowadays. In our headlong, madcap dash toward the future, it would be easy to forget the things that make the past so important—like honoring tradition, and keeping the spirits alive, in whatever form they may take. For the rest of my time in the Pacific Northwest, cruising throughout these waters, I think of Blake Island and Mathers, who is willing to share so much with groups of people he could justifiably call his oppressors. It punctuates this land, and lifts my spirits.