Ten 45-foot canoes jockeyed for position at the starting line and at the
crack of the gun, eleven pullers in each craft dug their paddles in deep to
get their canoes up and out of the water. After 10 strong pulls, the crew
synchronized their breathing.
“Whooo, Haaaa! Whooo, Haaaa!”
The chant rang out over the waters of Puget Sound and wakes of white foam
trailed off from the sterns of the canoes as racers pulled toward the half
way mark a mile-plus down the shore.
Not a cloud marred the warm June day. It was a good day for the Lummi
Nation’s 2004 Stommish races. A good day for the tribe to honor its
warriors. A good day for people to gather on the pebbly shores of the
Lummi’s excellent reservation. A good day to watch the canoe pulling.
“It was the World War I veterans that asked folks in the neighboring tribes
and bands to bring their canoes down to honor the returning soldiers from
World War II,” explained Lummi tribal member and director of the Lummi
Veterans Program David Jefferson. “We only had 721 tribal members then, and
104 of them served in the second World War. That only left women and
children and the old men home.” Now, 55 years later, with the tribal roster
numbering 4,000, the races are still going.
Canoes were a traditional means of transportation for coastal and island
tribes along the Northwest’s continental fringe. Not only did people use
cedar dugouts for trading trips, they also used them for raiding.
“My grandparents told me about how the islanders would come down and try to
steal our women,” remembered elder Henry Penny Hillaire of the Lummi tribe,
father of 14 children and a small community of grandchildren and great
grandchildren. “The men would jump in their canoes and head ’em off.
Charged out right after them to keep them from getting on shore.”
“Stommish means going to war. The whole thing is about taking charge and
raiding,” said Ignatius Pelky, of the Nooksack tribe. “It’s about challenge
and strategy. The bow was important as a fearsome thing. And these racing
canoes have evolved from those huge old war canoes.”
“In the old days we’d have bread for everyone and meat so they could make
their stews,” said Hillaire. “And the old people would always say, don’t
worry about the fish, we’ll furnish the fish.”
The fish is still available, although with the salmon runs in decline and
the price of meat up, the Lummi people aren’t able to feed their guests for
free like they did in the old days. The tribe has to subsidize the race
prizes which run from $1 for each person that pulls to $12 – $15 a paddle
for first place winners.
Nonetheless, the Stommish celebration has remained squarely within the
hospitable tradition of the Lummi people. Flanks of salmon are still
roasted on long splints in front of a cedar fire, the watermelon still gets
cut, and people set up shade tents on the beach and watch the youth race
from the comfort of portable deck chairs.
“Come on! Let ’em hear it!” shouted the announcer as the canoes came back
into sight and headed for the finish line. “Give ’em strength! Let ’em hear
John Miranda of the Nooksack tribe sat beside his single-man canoe and
watched his 18-year old-daughter race.
“I started 20 years ago,” said the 54-year-old man. “Pulling is one of the
best upper body workouts. You don’t get racked up or have trauma injuries.
And if you supplement it with running, you can really get in tune.”
“You have to live a clean life to pull canoe,” added Roni Skates of the
Swinimish tribe and Autumn Rose canoe club for women. “We train from early
spring clear through the fall. There’s no smoking and drinking or sugar and
caffeine. But it’s worth it. We turn into a family. And the Autumn Rose
club is even going to Hawaii this summer for the outrigger races.”
Pullers find they like being fit. Hillaire’s daughter, Penny Carole pulled
in her younger days. “Mom was determined to get me on the canoe. At first I
didn’t want to but before long I was running 10 miles a day and doing 200
Young Hillaire did all the sit-ups to have strong enough abs to do the
paddle changes. When they switch sides, pullers have to shift their hips
without tipping the canoe. A feat that all the pullers at Stommish 2004
managed to make look easy even as they chanted their way across the
shimmering, sunlit water.
“Chanting in the races wakes up the spirit of the canoe,” said long-time
carver and vice chairman of the Nooksack tribe, George Swanaset. “It’s
about the good life. The good life is a lot of noise. Everybody happy.
From under his ball cap and shades, Swanaset talked about the art of
carving a canoe. “I meditate with the tree and explain to it what’s going
on and why. That it’s going to travel and see places. A tree is just
another form of a human being,” he said. “Or maybe we are just another form
of a tree, I don’t know.”
Keith Point, Lummi tribal member also carves and sponsors the Five Star
canoe club. “We use canoe racing to teach culture to our children,” he
said. “Pulling is a tool. It’s a way to lead our kids to live a clean
Point explained though, “that increased expenses have decreased the amount
of participation. Where we used to have 18 11-man canoes in the race, this
year we only have 10.”
Single-man canoes run from $500 to $1,500, while the big 11-man’s go from
as low as $5,000 all the way up to $25,000, with $12,000 – $16,000 being
the average. Point added that to bring a whole club to a race for a weekend
runs almost $300 in gas alone.
Expenses aside, people still come to Stommish. Indeed, the thousand-plus
visitors, the largest crowd in years, meandered through water-side
fairgrounds. From down on the beach by the races to up at the pow wow arena
to the Ferris wheel to the traditional bone games that went on through the
night, people meandered in their Native Pride ball caps with eagle plumes
flying, with their Pendleton bags swinging off their hips, in their shawls
and buckskin bags carrying sweet grass braids and wearing cedar potlatch
hats. They meandered through the concession stands full of traditional
Lummi basketry, hand carved canoe paddles with designs painted in red and
black, and T-shirts geared toward the theme of the day – both a
commemorative race T-shirt designed by Lummi/Haida artist Bruce Pierre and
one that just said “Shut up and Paddle.”
Visitors meandered up the hill from the water to the bonfire and fireworks
staged by the Stommish Hill Rose Society, a tradition that the very large
Hillaire family has nurtured over the past five years. The Stommish Hill
Rose doings go all night right along with the bone games although they take
a more contemporary approach with drinks, music, disco dancing and the
crowing of royalty, who to no one’s surprise was yet another member of the
Hillaire family – Queen Maria.
“Stommish, whether you’re racing or playing the bone games or pow wowing or
partying,” said Richard Gutierrez of the Chawathil Band in British
Columbia, “is all about meeting new friends and seeing old ones. It’s a
long way for us to travel, but we keep coming back year after year.”