PENINSULA WOMAN: Helping to preserve Makah culture

NEAH BAY — The voice of Maria Pascua fills this room like the sound of a flute, while her gentle drumming offers the dancers a common heartbeat.

Across the floor of the Community Hall, children and young teenagers move together, now like wading birds, then like swans, then like warriors.

These 8- to 14-year-olds began learning these dances around the time they learned to walk, with Pascua and other women of the Makah tribe as their guides.

As their teacher and as a keeper of traditional songs and steps, Pascua is preparing for Makah Days, the 87th annual celebration on the Makah Reservation in Neah Bay on Aug. 27, 28 and 29.

On a recent sunny Thursday afternoon, Pascua drummed with June Williams and Crystal Thompson while her fellow teacher, Yvonne Wilkie, shepherded some four dozen youngsters around the dance floor.

And as the kids spread their wings like swans, leaned on the diagonal like shorebirds and sang softly in the Makah language, they looked more solemn than the typical youth dance troupe. None of the women leading this practice is calling out, “Smile!”

“One thing people sometimes wonder is why the dancers look so serious,” Pascua told a reporter.

Think about it: In a war dance, you wouldn’t be smiling.

And most of the other dances are expressions of respect for other living beings, such as the birds and whales with whom the Makah people share this place.

Some of the songs were received in dreams, Pascua added; others have been passed down through several generations.

Traditional Makah dancing has at its core “a deep spiritual composure,” Pascua said.

That’s not to say she’s serious all the time. During their two-hour practice, Pascua and Wilkie joke and laugh between songs, and call out to the kids when they’re making the right moves.

Pascua is just 51 now, but she’s been teaching Makah linguistics, dances and songs for more than three decades. During the school year, she teaches Makah language and culture to the teenagers at Neah Bay High School, and when summer comes, she’s with the youngsters again, refreshing their memories of the swan dance and others they will perform during Makah Days.

There’s also a dance portraying a line of sea gulls standing on a log, first in calm waters. Then, as a storm kicks up, the birds balance and adjust, turning that way and this so they can ride it out.

And to mix in something new on this afternoon, Pascua and Wilkie had their kids dance to a song about a young man and a young woman meeting.

The man asks her, “Why are you afraid of me? I only have good intentions,” Pascua explained. She adds the song is called “Eek-tuh-mah-mook,” and when a reporter manages to write that down correctly, Pascua gives her a fist bump and congratulations.

Pascua was a teenager herself when she began teaching. Having grown up in Neah Bay, she knew the songs and dances by heart, and she knew she wanted to keep them alive.

“I love singing. The songs make you feel so good,” she said.

In the Makah tribe, toddlers up through teenagers grow up dancing and singing together. With Pascua, they learn both the Makah language and the jargon their forebears used when trading with Alaska natives and whites inside and outside Neah Bay.

And don’t misunderstand those serious faces.

“I just love to dance,” said Jamie Parker, 16.

She added that she especially enjoys dancing with her small cousins; she came to Pascua’s practice for the younger kids and stayed after while Pascua and Wilkie reminisced a little.

“Growing up,” Wilkie said, “we had really powerful women role models,” such as the late Nora Barker. “Maria has stepped into their shoes; she is a really positive role model to the younger generation.”

And since many women have jobs outside the home, they don’t have time to come and lead the twice-weekly practices during the run-up to Makah Days, Wilkie added.

But owing to Pascua’s singing, and to the other women who come and drum together, the practices are much like they were when the annual celebration began more than eight decades ago.

“We danced to a CD the other day,” Wilkie said. “It was not the same.”

She remembers the day, decades ago, when “Maria stepped up, as a young person.”

Pascua was just 18, in fact, when she started leading songs.

So what gave her the nerve to do it?

“The people leading were in their 70s. They encouraged me to go ahead,” she recalled. “So I would try, and I would make mistakes.”

She still remembers the whole line of elders turning to look at her when that happened.

Pascua grew into a woman who teaches with both gentleness and authority. On a given summer day, she’s crisscrossing Neah Bay, leading groups at the school, in the Community Hall and at the Makah Cultural and Research Center.

“I’ve known Maria my whole life. She is just a really amazing combination of facts and wisdom and humor,” said Janine Bowechop, executive director of the center.

“She knows so much, and she enjoys sharing information with people. But she does it in such a way that’s interesting. She doesn’t pound things in. So people of all ages enjoy learning,” about Makah heritage.

“The high school kids really love her language class,” Bowechop added. “She makes it fun and relevant. They’re learning so many important things about Makah values; she’s making future generations of responsible Makah citizens.”

Pascua has lived all of her life here, the second-youngest and the only girl in a family with seven sons. She has two teenage sons, Andy and Titus, and three grown children, plus six grandchildren. For fun, she likes to go canoeing or read books that explore American history. This summer, she has several going at once, including one about Edward Curtis, the late photographer of Native Americans in the West.

Pascua added that she doesn’t read many novels — but she did pick up the Twilight books. Her husband of 26 years, Andrew Pascua, works at the Department of Social and Health Services in Forks, where Twilight is set, so she wanted to see for herself how the novels portray the place.

The true story of the Makah people, meantime, is told to the world every year on Makah Days weekend in August. Pascua, Wilkie and their families look forward to the parade, the canoe races, the ball games, the salmon bakes and the reunions with Makah tribal members who live outside Neah Bay.

And they look forward to sharing their music and dance, which are the traditional elements of potlatches — for weddings, naming ceremonies and other events — all year on the Makah Reservation.

While those are typically private family gatherings, Makah Days is the big, free, public party to which everybody in the Pacific Northwest is invited.

“Our culture is really deep and old. I love it here,” Pascua said. “I feel connected to this place, the people, the song, the dance.”

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