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Pacific Coast Natives Gather for Celebration of Culture

by Christine Clarridge, Staff Reporter
Seattle Times, September 8, 2002

Uncle Daniel Rapada and Ricky Belmont carefully flipped salmon on grills over burning coals yesterday, tossing in handfuls of damp chips to set free the aroma of alder smoke, a smell they call Indian cologne.

Wearing traditional hats and Hawaiian-print shirts, they basted the pink fillets of sockeye with butter, parsley and garlic and as hungry tourists and tribal members gathered around the men said a little prayer.

"Amen," said Rapada, of the Nooksack Tribe, with a wink and a quick grin.

He was kind of joking, but as Rapada's co-cook, Ricky Belmont, explained, the cooking of salmon is a sacred responsibility. And yesterday it belonged all to them at the Salmon Homecoming ceremony on the Seattle waterfront.

"For a lot of people this is a chance to celebrate their culture and to say hi to old friends," said Belmont, a Suquamish tribal member who also has ties to the Tulalip Tribes. "This is a chance to say welcome home to all the salmon and a time to get everybody back together."

The annual event, which continues today at piers 61 and 62, remembers the rituals that Native peoples along the Pacific Coast have held sacred for centuries as they celebrated the first salmon runs of the season.

Dozens of tribes from Oregon, Washington, Canada and Alaska were represented at the homecoming.

"Every group from California to Alaska had traditional ceremonies to welcome the first salmon," said Robert Ravenspeaker Fredericksen, of the Tsimshian tribe. "This is our attempt to recreate that."

But this year's celebration a lighthearted and friendly event that includes songs and dances that invite everyone to join in also has biological reasons.

Near-record runs of chinook and sockeye have been reported in parts of the Pacific Northwest this year.

Chinook at the mouth of the Columbia River were projected to total 659,800, the second-largest return since 1948. And state fisheries officials reported a run of 400,000 sockeye in Puget Sound.

Still, decades of timber clear-cuts, dams, residential development and raising fish in hatcheries have put some species of wild salmon in danger of extinction.

"That's just one more reason for us to be happy and welcome our brother (salmon) home," said one man at the festival.

During the canoe-welcoming ceremony, members of local tribes gathered to sing and drum while members of visiting tribes approached in hand-hewn canoes a familiar scene on Puget Sound shores for centuries before white settlement.

The two groups sang to each other. One asked in their Native tongue, "May we come ashore?" The other sang back, "Please do, you are our honored guests!"

"In traditional times, each tribe and village was a separate world," Fredericksen said.

"When it came to entering someone else's territory, you literally had to have permission. It's like knocking one someone's door, you don't just walk in."

Christine Clarridge, Staff Reporter
Pacific Coast Natives Gather for Celebration of Culture
Seattle Times, September 8, 2002

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