TULALIP — Three generations gathered around a single crackling fire, warming the faces of their drums near the flames.
Slowly, the rhythms of the drummers rose to a crescendo, soon joined by cedar rattles and roaring voices. “Welcome Song” by Harriette Shelton Dover carried along the cedar walls of the longhouse Thursday night. This was the last practice before the Tulalip community’s annual salmon ceremony.
“When we lived in these homes, we practiced our culture daily, it was shared daily and taught to our young people,” former Tulalip Tribes vice president Glen Gobin said in a packed longhouse. “We live in a different world today…but the teachings have yet to move forward, so we are beginning to prepare for the salmon ceremony by practicing because we no longer live in this house.”
On Saturday, more than 100 people gathered on Tulalip Bay to welcome a visitor: yubəč, or King Salmon. It was a joyful return to the annual tradition.
The longhouse’s wooden seats, filled with guests from as far away as the Makah tribe, shook as drums and singers stirred the smoky air for hours. Every song, every story, every blessing was passed down orally, Gobin said.
The late longtime tribal chairman Stan Jones Sr. performed his song “Eagle/Owl” at the ceremony. It came to him while traveling through Deception Pass — a spiritual place for many Coast Salish people, Gobin said. As the song echoed through the longhouse, shawl-draped dancers spread their arms and twirled, as if to glide across the room.
Elder Bev Tom passed on the song for the blessing of sinners, Gobin said. She died just a year after sharing her song. Tribal citizens sang it over and over as fishermen and canoe pullers were blessed one by one on Saturday morning.
As a canoe headed for the shore of Tulalip Bay with the first King Salmon, drummers and singers carried a prayer song to the beach. People wearing braided cedar hats, clothes decorated with abalone shells and small cedar paddles, ribbon shirts and skirts quickly poured into the gymnasium to share the first piece of salmon together.
Drew Hatch, who helped carry the salmon ashore, sat down with his grandmother, Lena Hammons, for the meal. Hammons recalled that Hatch has been coming to Salmon Ceremonies every year since he was a toddler.
It’s even more important to him now as a fisherman, Hatch said.
Each year, the return of the monarch butterfly and ripening salmon berries “mean it’s time to prepare” for the return of the King Salmon, said Glen Gobin.
The salmon ceremony is a responsibility, said Patti Gobin, who has been part of the annual tradition since returning in the late 1970s.
Oral tradition says that if people stop honoring the King Salmon, it will stop coming back every season and the salmon people will cease to exist, said Patti Gobin. After the meal, his remains were returned to the water so he could tell his people how the Tulalip tribes treated him.
In 1970 Harriette Shelton Dover brought together tribal leaders – Morris and Bertha Dan, Stan and Joann Jones, Gloria St. Germaine, Molly Hatch, Mariah Moses, Fillmore Amos and Bob and Celia Jones – at Bernie Gobin to begin planning the revival of their ancestral salmon ceremony.
The ceremony was discontinued for decades during the Age of Assimilation, but the elders retained this knowledge, said Chelsea Craig. She has been coming to the Salmon Ceremony with her mother, Patti Gobin, since she was a baby.
“To me, that’s not revitalization,” Craig said. “It’s the sustainability of our people. Despite residential school, we always maintained who we were as Coast Salish people.
In her autobiography, Shelton Dover recalls piecing together what she and others heard from their parents and grandparents from the annual tradition.
“I wrote what I thought and we did a good draft: the intro or the first opening song, the blessing of the longhouse,” she wrote. “Then we got together to beat the drums…we sang what we remembered.”
The ceremony was revived in 1976.
Natosha Gobin has been going to the salmon ceremony for as long as she can remember. Iconic Tulalip leaders like his grandfather, Bernie Gobin, and Stan Jones taught him the way.
In 2020, the pandemic forced tribal leaders to announce the cancellation of the Salmon Ceremony for the first time since its revival. In 2021 it returned as a smaller gathering.
“One of the things we talk about is how it affects our minds,” Natosha Gobin said. “It was a struggle of not having a community and not having each other and not being able to share a meal with each other – a salmon meal. Something as simple as d just being in each other’s presence.
The break in annual gatherings seems to have brought people back to their heritage, said Lushootseed language teacher Thomas Williams. Some people who showed up for practices this year never attended the salmon ceremony.
“I think it gives people an urgent need and want to use things that maybe they didn’t think were as important before,” he said. “…They want to learn the songs and they try to understand the community they’re in.”
Harriette Shelton Dover was the first generation of the revival, said Glen Gobin. Stan Jones was the second generation of the revival. His generation, that of President Teri Gobin, is the third generation. His sons and daughters, he says, are of the fourth generation. His grandchildren are the fifth generation.
“It is in a lifetime,” said Glen Gobin, “that we can witness the transmission of the teachings.”
Today, it’s still a form of medicine, Tayna Greene said.
Williams, a fisherman, only started participating in the salmon ceremony after meeting his partner, Natosha Gobin. It is now an integral part of his life.
“It puts it all in context,” he said, “to come to the ceremony and kind of get out of the modern style of fishing, but get more into the thinking with what our ancestors thought of salmon.”
Image Enick, 15, said he would never have attended his first Salmon Ceremony without the encouragement of Craig, his teacher at the time. She took Enick and his friend to practices and “taught us the importance of singing loud and singing with pride”.
He was nervous during that first ceremony, but not anymore.
“I am thrilled to be back in our home – where our ancestors had this ceremony, in the same place – and to honor our King Salmon,” Enick said. “Let him know that these are civilized times, but these teachings are still there. And we mastered it.