Students at the Quileute Tribal School take part in a paddle song during the Welcoming the Whales ceremony. (Clayton Franke/The Daily World)

Students at the Quileute Tribal School take part in a paddle song during the Welcoming the Whales ceremony. (Clayton Franke/The Daily World)

Quileute welcome whales in annual ceremony

Tribe celebrates cultural connection with dance

LA PUSH — The Quileute Tribe welcomed migrating whales with an offering of salmon and a song and dance on the sand — and in the surf — of First Beach in La Push.

Battling sideways wind and rain, 16-year-old David Ward and five of his peers waded barefoot through rolling waves carrying a wooden float adorned with a salmon filet on a bed of cedar branches last Friday. They turned the float over, the salmon disappeared into the waves, and the teens splashed back to shore to be draped in blankets.

“I could not feel my feet,” Ward said later.

Prior to the salmon offering, about 90 students — from kindergarteners to high-schoolers — from Quileute Tribal School participated in a paddle song on the ball fields near First Beach while tribal member Marco Black and others provided a leading drumbeat.

Meanwhile, gray whales were moving north in the midst of a 10,000-mile migration from Mexico to the Arctic.

Some were seen spouting and breaching near La Push in the week leading up to the ceremony, said Rio Jaime, Quileute Tribal Council treasurer.

The idea for the current Welcoming the Whales ceremony was born about 16 years ago, when Jaime, then a tribal school staff member, and the late Leon Strom, the school’s former principal, sat in a staff meeting at the old tribal school by the water, looking out at the ocean through the school’s massive windows.

“Everybody was distracted by the whale spouting, and we said, ‘Maybe we could bring the kids down there and do some songs and dances to welcome the whales back,’” Jaime said.

That ceremony consisted of just a few tribal members and elders, but the tradition has since grown into an event open to the public, and Jaime said this year was the largest he’s ever seen.

In the days when Quileute people hunted whales, they would hold a large song and dance ceremony before whale hunters embarked on dangerous journeys in canoes, Jaime said.

“The whale migration was a real big part to the Quileute people in the old days,” Jaime said. “The end of March and beginning of April was the time the whale hunters would go out and harvest the whales for their meat and oil to sustain them throughout the year.”

While the tribe no longer hunts whales, “nowadays it’s more about recognizing the importance of whales to Quileute culture and history and an opportunity to share some songs and dances and wish them well on their migration,” Jaime said.

Quileute Tribal School students are the core of the ceremony. Lucy Ross, the school’s culture teacher, said students had practiced songs and dances since the beginning of the school year. In the month leading up to the event, Ross teaches lessons about the history of Quileute whale and seal hunting.

“It’s eye opening for some of the kids,” Ross said.

Tribal member Ann Penn-Charles made regalia for the ceremony and assisted in the instruction of the songs and dances during the students’ PE classes.

“We all have a part for them performing and doing our dances right for the community to see it,” she said.

The students also learn about salmon preparation, she said. The ceremonial fish, a Chinook salmon, was caught by Quileute fishermen, who then taught students on how to filet the fish, Penn-Charles said.

“Some of those kids don’t know how to do any of that stuff,” she said, adding, “We honor our whales because we know the importance to the ecosystem, and we feed the whales with the salmon we put out on our float.”

Penn-Charles, who has lived in La Push most of her life, recalled one of her earliest memories: In 1969, a crew of six Quileute hunters, led by Big Bill Penn, dispatched in two canoes and brought back a gray whale to First Beach. A 3-year-old at the time, Penn-Charles remembers walking down to the beach to help with the butchering of the whale, which was distributed to the community. That was the last time, in her memory, a whale was harvested out of La Push.

On Friday, Penn-Charles’ granddaughter, Elizabeth Soto — the Quileute Queen — led the line of schoolchildren and others during the paddle song by the water, and later in the A-Ka-Lat building up the road, where the ceremony concluded with food and other traditional songs and dances.

________

Reporter Clayton Franke works for The Daily World in Aberdeen, a Sound Publishing newspaper.

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