Lummi performs a history we must remember

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Through song and oral tradition, the Lhaq’temish, the People of the Sea, tell the story of their long years. It is but a short distance from this to the dramatic presentation of the stage.

The Lummi Nation thrilled the audience earlier this month with a sold-out performance at Bellingham High School of “What About Those Promises?” The original historical stageplay told the story of the tribe’s way of life and connection to nature, and how both were severed by the broken promises of the Treaty of Point Elliott, signed in 1855.

More than 800 people packed the high school auditorium the evening of June 1 to hear this story in multiple parts, beginning with a blessing of song and drum from the Crab Bay Singers and a moving recital of the tribe’s world story, delivered in native tongue, their connection to sea and sky.

Produced by tribal council member Darrell Hillaire and directed by Western Washington University Theatre Arts emeritus Dennis Catrell, the production is based on an original stage play by the late Joseph Hillaire. Performers included tribal elders and students at the Lummi Youth Academy, where Darrell Hillaire serves as director. The cast and crew will perform an encore on Sun., June 16.

“My uncle wrote the parts where the Lummi fisher, the clam digger, the sea lion hunters tell their stories,” Hillaire said. “Other parts were added. The rest came together almost magically.”

Punctuating dramatic performances, Charles Wilkinson, a law professor at the University of Colorado, steps forward in the soft light of powerful archival visuals and tells the story of 1855 and what followed. Others echo the story, in a mix of native tongues.

In that year, Lummi—along with representatives of the Duwamish, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, Snohomish, Skagit, Swinomish ,and other tribes—signed a treaty with the United States, which called for natives to relinquish much of their homeland in western Washington Territory. In return, they were assigned land reserved for them that initially consisted of 15,000 acres. Onstage, an anguished Chief Seattle (movingly performed by Vancouver artist Gene Harry) begs these tribal leaders not to sign. In the end, territorial officials scratched Seattle’s mark on the document. Within a score of years, their numbers devastated by disease and the poverty of reservation life, Lummi Nation—which had once fully peopled the San Juans—had dwindled to fewer than 435 souls, cut by half in four decades.

In the 1920s, Lummi Nation made appeals to the federal government to restore their rights to fish in traditional and accustomed places and to fairly compensate them for their lands. By 1970, this had suppurated into an official claim with the Indian Claims Commission, requesting additional money from the United States, arguing the amount granted to Lummi in the 1855 treaty was too low. The commission argued that $52,067 was a fair market value when the treaty was ratified in 1859 and, in 1972, after a series of suits and appeals, the tribe was awarded the amount of $57,000.

“This was a great insult to my people,” Lummi Historian Ramona Morris recalled.

Lummi tribal government formally rejected the amount and vowed never to accept it. Each year, the tribal council renews their resolution never to touch that money. The money sits in a trust, managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, gathering interest and dust.

“Some of our newest members on council, our newest generation, did not understand all of the background of Resolution 110,” Hillaire explained. “So we had the idea to teach them through a performance. From there, the idea just grew to include the rest of the community. We thought everyone should know this story.”

“What we learned is it is not about money,” TJ White Antelope said. White Antelope is a student at Lummi Youth Academy, a multidisciplinary school that ticket sales benefits. “There will never be enough land or money for what was done to us. Money was offered to us because that’s what they think natives always want. ‘Money will make them be quiet.’ But, no, it was never about the money. It was never about the land. It was about the promises made in the treaty. We want our sacred sites noted.”

“For people who don’t know who the Lummi people are, this might be like an outing for them,” another student, Kyla Frajman, said of the performance. “For our own people, I feel like this play can make them proud of who we are.

“We were practicing and practicing, really overwhelming at times,” said Frajman, who has studied drama at the Academy. “Then, right before we were going up on stage, we got dressed up and ready, and it was real. It had a different feel.”

“The elders had their sticks and they were walking like I had never seen them,” White Antelope agreed. “Some of them are like 80-plus. It all became very real for us. They did perfect steps.”

“It was magical,” Hillaire laughed. “And the biggest magic was how it all came together right at the very end.”

A capacity crowd stood and cheered: “We raise our hands to you… O’ Si’am!”

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