Paddle to Lummi to bring 13,000 daily to area

Canoes from around Pacific Northwest to come to area for five-day event

Canoeists from tribes throughout Puget Sound race during the Stommish Water Festival June 24. Many of the same canoe families that attended the annual event are also participating in Paddle to Lummi throughout July.


More than 80 canoes from Pacific Northwest tribes will arrive on the shores of the Lummi Nation July 30 with their paddles up, sending a message they come in peace. Some will have traveled more than 500 miles in less than a month, and for the following five days, more than 70 tribes will commune on the Lummi Nation, sharing goods, culture and goodwill. The practice is called a potlatch, and it has been 70 years since the last one the Lummi hosted.

“A potlatch of this magnitude hasn’t happened here for a lot of years,” said James Hillaire, chairman of the Paddle to Lummi committee. “It means a lot to a lot of us. And to the young ones it means to help connect them back to the way things used to be and the years gone by.”

A potlatch is an ancient social and economic system that defies the accumulation-of-wealth principle of modern day capitalism. At a potlatch, people gather to give of themselves — whether it be personal belongings, goods, services, stories or culture. It is based on the simple principle of giving without expecting anything in return, said Larry Kinley, former Lummi Nation chairman.

“One of the highest signs of how wealthy you were was how much you could give,” Kinley said. “If you give, then you get, too. It almost comes back five – to 10-fold because people think that you’ve given. You’re giving for the right reasons, of course, but you’re actually receiving more than you give.”

The real economic impact of the coming event on the Lummi Nation and surrounding community has already been felt. The giving spirit of the potlatch, rooted in ancient tradition, still has application today. Aaron Thomas, the public relations director for Paddle to Lummi, said he hopes the potlatch will help the people of Whatcom County get back to the roots of why they do business: to serve others. The Paddle to Lummi Committee is seeking at least $1 million in donations for the event.

“The economic impact of this event is absolutely astounding,” Thomas said.

He said the area should be ready for an economic boom — the Lummi Nation is preparing for up to 13,000 people per day for the event.


A long tradition of giving

Potlatches have been essential in the past to Pacific Northwest culture — it was a time when resources were shared, cultures were exchanged and differences were settled, Kinley said.

“Most important of all, it all worked,” he said.

Thomas said before the tribes of the Pacific Northwest had contact with European settlers, they lived in a world of abundance.

“We had the Costco of resources everywhere,” Thomas said. “When potlatches would happen, we knew as we were giving everything that we valued, whether material or not material, the creator would replenish that source. We knew that. We believed in that.”

Thomas said today the Lummi people still believe in the potlatch concept somewhat, although the culture of abundance no longer exists.

“We shared and were very generous,” Hillaire said. “Finally it came to a point where we shared too much.”

After the colonization of the Pacific Northwest, the system stopped working. Kinley said colonists came in, stripped out the resources and transported them elsewhere, leaving nothing to stimulate the Native American economy.

Potlatches were misunderstood and outlawed by Canadian and U.S. governments. The suppression of ancient traditions coupled with the exploitation of their people and the resources led Pacific Northwest tribes to associate business with the oppression of Native Americans, Kinley said.

“A lot of folks equated business as a bad thing, as a mysterious thing,” he said.

The negative association remains today, adding to the economic oppression that has plagued Pacific Northwest tribes for decades.

But there are new movements to reinvigorate not only tribal economies but the philosophy embodied in the potlatch. The association of business with exploitation is being replaced with a new look at old traditions and a realization that many traditional practices are run like a business, Kinley said.

“We’re trying to get across to folks to understand that this isn’t anything new,” he said.

James Hillaire (left) speaks/drums at the July 1 presentation of Paddle to Lummi at the Whatcom Museum. Antone George joins him (right). The Lummi expect more than 40,000 people to come to the area July 30 through Aug. 4 for the celebration.


Reviving the potlatch

Part of the economic reinvigoration of tribal economies is the revival of the potlatch itself. In 1989, nine canoes revived the potlatch through the first canoe journey to Seattle. There have been 12 canoe journeys since the Paddle to Seattle, and it has been an annual event hosted by different tribes since 1997.

“It’s a sight to see — all the different canoes, different languages, different regalia,” said Freddie Lane, director of Paddle to Lummi.

The event has grown since its humble beginnings — at last year’s canoe journey, more than 60 canoes landed on the shores of Muckleshoot, bringing approximately 40,000 people to the area.

“They’re still kind of overwhelmed by all the people that came and all the culture sharing,” Hillaire said.

The challenge of hosting the potlatch is immense. Three years ago Hillaire accepted the challenge of hosting the potlatch for the Lummi at the journey to the Elwha Nation, and he and Lane have been working tirelessly with other volunteers to solicit donations and organize the event.

Much like the canoe journey itself, where some tribes will travel more than 500 miles in less than a month, Paddle to Lummi has come a long way in a short time. Five years ago for the Lummi’s first canoe journey, Hillaire said they had to borrow canoes, paddles, life jackets and even some crew to participate.

Now the Lummis have their own canoe and Hillaire, 73, has been captain for the last several years. He will be so again this year as they paddle from the Cambell River to the shores of the Stommish Grounds.

“I don’t have many journeys left,” he said.

Hillaire said the journey is a spiritual one for him, but that it has a different impact on everyone involved. For many, he said it is a healing journey. Paddle to Lummi is strictly a drug and alcohol free event. Hillaire, who has been sober for 40 years, said the entire country battles the demons of drugs and alcohol.

“It’s a war we fight with an enemy we can’t see,” he said.


A Whatcom County potlatch

Thomas said he hopes the healing power of the potlatch can help forge new connections with Whatcom County that have been marred by past transgressions. Whatcom County businesses are making that connection by joining the potlatch through donating time, money and resources to help accommodate the more than 40,000 people expected during the six day celebration. The Bellingham Herald and Sanitary Service Company have pledged support for the event, and many more are following suit.

Thomas said he’s both surprised and pleased to see what the community has given thus far.

“It’s more than just the Lummis,” said John Macpherson, president of the Bellingham based engineering firm Anvil Corporation. The company donated $1,000 for Paddle to Lummi and will match employee contributions. “It can be a Whatcom County event. It’s a community event that isn’t going to happen again in my lifetime.”

Hillaire said the potlatch is good for the Lummis as well as its extended community.

“It seems as though the entire county is stepping forward to help us out,” he said. “It’s a good feeling, one we haven’t had in my lifetime.”

The Paddle to Lummi’s effect on the community will likely be felt for a long time to come. Hillaire said last year’s canoe journey to the Muckleshoot tribe left a lasting effect on the community, one he hopes will be duplicated on the Stommish Grounds July 30. Lane said the sad history of how the potlatch was taken away from the Lummi still lingers, but there is cause to celebrate: Paddle to Lummi is the return of the potlatch.


Paddle to Lummi

When: July 30 – Aug. 4
What: At least 80 canoes will land on the shores of the Stommish Grounds July 30
What to expect: The Lummi expect approximately 13,000 people coming to the area each day
More info:


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