OCEAN SHORES, Wash. — Sixty-four members of the Seminole Tribe’s Naples community traveled about as far as possible in the continental U.S. for a cultural exchange with the Quinault and Quileute tribes in Washington State June 17-22.
The trip was a result of a previous cultural exchange the community had with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina last December; it was so memorable they wanted to do another one. The community took a vote and decided on the Pacific Northwest. Naples Liaison Brian Zepeda had been to the area in the past and he reached out to the two tribes.
The first event of the exchange was held at the Quinault Beach Resort and Casino in Ocean Shores where each tribe shared traditions, songs and dances. The Seminoles were first to share. Zepeda explained the stomp dance tradition, which is shared with other southeastern tribes including the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Choctaw and Miccosukee.
“The men sing, the women are responsible for the tempo with their shakers,” Zepeda said. “Men and women have to work together to make the songs come to life. We usually dance around a fire to let the creator know we are honoring him.”
They were led by Zepeda and his brother Pedro Zepeda.
“Historically the friendship dance is done with other tribes so we could find peace with each other,” Brian Zepeda said.
He invited everyone to join the dance. The room filled with Seminole, Quinault and Quileute dancers of all ages who bonded through the dance.
A drum group comprised of both Quinault and Quileute tribal members gathered on one side of the ballroom. Rio Jaime, Quileute event coordinator for the cultural exchange, explained that like the Seminoles and Miccosukee, these tribes’ family connections go back through generations of intermarriage.
“All of these four tribes know each other’s dances,” said Ann Penn Charles, Quileute. “That’s the good part. We’ve all intermarried.”
The drum group has met weekly for more than 20 years in the Quileute reservation as a healing circle for a recovery group.
Jaime said people come from all over the region to participate. Michael Jacob Black led the group.
“We are the Quinault people, we are the Quileute people, we are the four villages of this territory,” he said. “We are here to sing and share songs and dances. It’s always good to see our young ones sing our songs and get the spirit up.”
The first songs were paddle songs, which were used to announce which tribe and which families they represent. The group members each had hand drums and beat them in sync as their deep voices sang. The effect was powerful and resonated through the ballroom.
Simultaneously, a group of women and girls dressed in traditional shawls and button blankets and holding smaller versions of canoe paddles, danced in a large circle with slow, deliberate movements. The song and dance told the story of their canoe journey.
During a song about a killer whale and a wolf, dancers mimicked the movements of both animals as the drumbeat instructed.
The story tells of a killer whale that emerged from the sea to look for food. When it came onto land, it transformed into a wolf.
In Quileute stories, killer whales and wolves are essentially the same since either one could transform into the other. As it was hunting on land for food, the wolf encountered man, who chased it back into the sea where it transformed back into a killer whale.
Hence, the dancers played both parts. As the whale, they appeared to swim like a whale. As the wolf, they crouched as they moved stealthily.
“We have seen our great canoes come in,” Black said. “It’s nice to have our guests here to share and have some fun.”
Inclusion was an important theme of the evening. Outside of the drum circle, 18-month-old Galen Williams did his best to keep the beat on his own smaller version of the adults’ drums.
Jesse Kowoosh and Amber Green brought their 4-week-old son Journey into the drum circle. He didn’t awaken despite the drumming and singing. They sang a prayer song to welcome the young family.
“We welcome this young one,” Black sang. “Speak like your grandmother, speak like your grandfather.”
Gifts and thanks were exchanged and the evening closed with musician Keith Secola on guitar.
The following day, after a detour to Ruby Beach and its magnificent rock formations and drift logs, Tribal members traveled north to the Quileute Reservation. All the coastal tribes have a strong canoe tradition which the Quileute shared with the Seminoles by taking them in canoes about a mile up the Quileute River.
“All the tribes of the northwest are canoe people,” Jaime said. “It’s faster and more efficient to travel by water than over the mountains and through the woods.”
The ocean-going canoes are traditionally made of cedar strips and can be longer than 40 feet. Today, some are made of fiberglass, but all are painted with traditional symbols.
“There is a lot of math involved in making canoes,” said Charles. “Algebra, trigonometry, geometry. We use the math in a cultural way. Our ancestors knew how to make the canoes before they knew they were using math.”
The paddles are unique and decorated with family designs. Made of cedar, they can last for decades. Everyone in the canoe was expected to paddle, including the visiting Seminoles. The skipper sat in back and gave commands of where to paddle and which direction. The pacemaker sat in front and set the pace for all to follow. The ideal was for all eight people in the canoe to paddle together.
The two canoes left in shifts so everyone who wanted it had the experience of canoeing with the Quileute tribal members. Next up was a traditional fish bake of king salmon followed by a drum circle in the Tribe’s gym.
The traditional way of roasting king salmon is skewered on cedar, or kwakspat, sticks which are stood upright next to a smoky fire of alder wood logs. The process can take three to five hours depending on the size of the fish. On this night they roasted 10 salmon for about three hours.
“The Quileute River has a generous bounty of salmon and steelhead trout,” Jaime said. “There is something coming up the river all year. The majority of the Quileute are commercial fishermen, just like our ancestors. Fish is food; it is the same word in our language.”
As the salmon baked, Charles talked about the upcoming annual canoe journey from LaBush, the Quileute reservation location, to the Makah Nation in Neah Bay, a distance of about 55 miles.
“We leave at around 5 a.m. and pray we get there by 7 a.m.,” she said. “One year we didn’t get there until midnight because of a storm. We had to take shelter on an island.”
During the journey, the canoes will sometimes use sails. They travel about three to 12 miles from shore, depending on the currents.
“It is impolite to go into another tribe’s territory silently, so we come in singing,” Jaime said. “It’s like ringing a doorbell. We sing family paddle songs; it’s a very old way of introducing who we are.”
Brian and Pedro Zepeda shared their dugout canoe stories with members of the Quinault and Quileute tribes. They explained the Seminoles canoes can only be as wide as the cypress tree and today most are much smaller than hundreds of years ago.
They are best for navigating through the shallow swamps of the Everglades.
Although a large cedar strip canoe is very different than a dugout canoe, the men shared a strong connection through their respect for taking a canoe out on the water; swamp, river or ocean.
“You guys are also canoe people,” Jaime said. “It was great having you here today.”
During the drum circle, Jaime wore regalia made of cedar wood cut in thin strips, deer hooves and representations of whales and elk. He explained the drums are made of elk or deer or bear hides.
During the drum circle where the women danced and the men drummed, the Seminole Tribe was acknowledged and Brian Zepeda was invited to share a story. He told of stories that were shared through generations of Seminoles about other peoples – Pacific Islanders, Mauris, Tongas – who came to Florida. The Seminoles learned a lot from them including how to watch the sharks and navigate by the stars. He shared the same story with a group of Pacific Islanders who recently came to visit the Tribe.
“When I started to tell the story, a woman began to cry. I apologized for upsetting her and she said she cried because she heard the same story when she was a child, but from the other side,” Zepeda said. “I know our people also met long ago and we are grateful to be here today.”
A free day in Seattle followed the cultural exchange. Before a harbor cruise, Brian Zepeda summed up the visit.
“It went fantastic,” he said. “We have a lot of similarities; canoes, songs and dances. Everyone enjoyed the canoes and the whale song, they were captivated by it.”
Tina Osceola also came away from the exchange with positivity.
“It’s always good to go to other parts of Indian Country and experience their lives,” she said. “We always assume we’re so different from each other, but we all have the same struggles, passions and celebrate the fact that we’ve survived. By sharing song, dance and art we reconfirm with each other that we weren’t terminated.”