Elliott Nathan Jr. is proud to be leader of the Tsimshian Haayuuk Dancers, but he is even more prideful in counting his family members — including his wife, sisters, daughters, son and parents — among his troupe.
The dancers, dressed in traditional tribal regalia, performed ceremonial dances and songs to a rapt audience at the 25th Annual Penn Cove Water Festival Saturday afternoon.
Each is a member of the Tsimshian Tribe, based in areas along the northern coast of British Columbia, Canada and Southeast Alaska.
The group, which performs at festivals and other events throughout the region, is comprised of members of four clans and several generations, ranging in age from infant to 73, with Nathan Jr.’s mother being the eldest.
The dances were interspersed with explanations and introductions by Nathan Jr., who discussed the history of the dances and the Tsimshian culture of which they are a part.
On any other Saturday, wet and chilly weather may have left the streets of Coupeville relatively sparse. But during the festival, the rain seemed an appropriate addition.
Vicky Reyes, president of the Penn Cove Water Festival Association, said she won’t have exact numbers for another week or so, but estimated that this year the festival attracted somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 visitors.
The majority arrived early in the day, though quite a few stalwarts hung around to see the dancing and the last of the canoe races.
“People love being able to go out and dance with them,” Reyes said.
During one dance in particular, onlookers were invited to join in what Nathan Jr. referred to jokingly as a “Northwest Coast mosh pit.”
The canoe races were also a popular event.
About 12 clubs and 350 pullers participated, a solid turnout despite some concern beforehand that traffic congestion near Anacortes could hinder some of the participants in getting to the festival.
Reyes explained that many of the pullers come from Bellingham or Canada and had heard rumors about backups due to the protest at the Anacortes refinery.
“We are honored that they come because we are the only canoe races that are not on a reservation,” Reyes said, citing a statement by Susan Berta, Beach Watchers executive director who was one of those responsible for the revival of the festival in 1992.
About 100 of the 350 pullers were young people, something Nathan Jr. referred to as “a beautiful thing,” adding that the uptake of cultural traditions by younger generations is not only something in which he takes pride, it’s vital to the survival of the tribe and their customs.
He added that he knows of only 11 people living who speak the Tsimshian language fluently; his mother is one.
The festival began in 1930 as a means of honoring the region’s original residents, people like the Tsimshian.
Over the years, up to 22 tribes have been represented at the event.
It was put on hiatus at the onset of World War II, but has been held each year since its resurrection.
“A strong group of people within the town decided to resurrect the canoe races to bring visitors to Coupeville and encourage the cultural understanding of the indigenous people on whose land we now live,” Reyes said.
Many current participants have been involved annually since its reincarnation in the 1990s.
The festival also incorporated tribal storytelling, music, food and artwork, in addition to several educational exhibits.
“It went wonderfully, we were so hopeful the 25th anniversary would be a big success and it was,” Reyes said.