The Argosy provides a comfortable
45-minute cruise to Blake Island.
Our 4-hour adventure to Tillicum Village on Blake Island, a marine state park, began at Pier 55 on Seattle's Central Waterfront. We're boarding the Argosy's Goodtime II for a 45-minute cruise to the island for a traditional Northwest Coast Indian Salmon Bake and Show, "Dance On The Wind." Our departure, scheduled for 4:30 p.m. is delayed a few minutes while guests get their pictures taken against a backdrop of wharf, sailing ships and sunny Northwest skies.
The Goodtime II, chartered out by Tillicum Village, is one of Argosy's highest capacity boats, carrying a maximum of 450 passengers, with 300 seats. Families, children and travelers enjoy two levels—each with a bar—indoor or outdoor seating and bathrooms.
Before boarding the Argosy,
a memorable photo.
The dock at Blake Island was built by Tillicum Village, and the first thing you see upon arrival is the giant longhouse with its Kwakiutle (British Columbia) Indian design. The second thing is the young man at top of the dock serving complimentary clam cocktails in a warm broth.
Inside the longhouse salmon is king. We help ourselves to heavy white plastic salmon-shaped platters, a build-your-own fresh salad bar, new red potatoes, wild rice, Tillicum whole grain bread and delicious salmon that has been cooking, Indian style, for about an hour. Family style tables set with candles fill the darkened center of the longhouse, and at one side is the stage where the show will begin after we've eaten our fill; we're encouraged to go back for seconds. Tea or coffee is included, and beer and wine servers circulate among the diners—$5 for each, with a selection that includes such local beers as Red Hook. At each place setting is a special treat, a Boehm's Chocolate Salmon.
The longhouse is in British
Columbia's Kwakiutle Indian style.
As we're enjoying coffee and nibbling little chocolate salmons, the stage show begins with whistling wind and bird calls and a mournful flute. "Dance On The Wind" is a combination of myth and magic.
Employees are from Pacific
Northwest Coastal Indian tribes.
A narrator intones, "Northwest Coast Indian dances were performed by Northwest tribes lined along the coast between the Columbia River and southern Alaska—many tribes, each with their own customs, bound by the sea." He goes on to explain that in winter the people gathered in cedar longhouses to dance, eat, and pass down to their children their histories in stories.
A canoe with two people slowly crosses the stage, and the narrator says, "The Paddle Dance welcomes all who hear it to Potlatch."
A wall of rain falls onstage while the narrator speaks of spirits who circulated "in the winter more freely among man." A lone dancer appears in a mask carved from wood, with a painted beak and straw hair. "From the west coast of Vancouver comes the Ancestral Mask dance." The narrator speaks of weaving blankets of cedar bark, dog's fur, the fur of other animals and even bird down. "The Hudson Bay Company brought wool blankets, red felt from Russia, white buttons from China." Onto the stage children appear to perform "the Lummi Blanket Dance from the western coast of Washington State."
We hear the story of "Mighty Thunderbird or Raven, Creator of the first human being." This is a legend of "The Terrible Beast," covered with fur with sharp claws but who walked upright like a man. His most amazing feat is being able to vanish. A formidable dancer appears enclosed in a bear fur cape and massive bear headdress. Two hunters corner Raven and suddenly—the beast vanishes stage center!
We are welcomed with clam
cocktails in warm broth.
Next the narrator tells how Raven stole the light from an old tribal chief so that Raven would no longer be hidden by the darkness. As he escapes, chased by an eagle, he breaks off pieces of the light, creating the sun, moon and stars. Five dancers with elaborately carved headdresses appear to perform the Dance of Masks. The narrator explains, "The diversity and power of the masks define the very essence of the tribes." This magical, educational show ends with words of Chief Seattle, ". . . the children dance on the wind."
All the salad, new red potatoes, wild
rice, Tillicum whole grain bread, and
delicious salmon you can eat!
Salmon cooked around an alderwood
fire, in the traditional method of
the Northwest Coast Indians.
The story of Tillicum Village is legendary in itself. In the 1950s Bill Hewitt, owner of a Seattle catering business, developed a salmon bake based on an Indian potlatch salmon dinner prepared in the traditional method of the Northwest Coast Indians. With head and backbone removed, the whole salmon is pinned vertically on five-foot cedar stakes around a blazing alderwood fire.
Hewitt had been providing the salmon bakes on a private basis. They became so popular that by 1959 he began to look for a site where he could build an Indian longhouse restaurant. He approached the State Park Commission with the idea of Blake Island as a location. Scheduled to open during the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, the restaurant suffered unexpected delays which proved financially disastrous. What followed was a battle to survive. Hewitt's Blake Island project eventually overcame slow sales volumes, late payments to financiers, looming bankruptcy, seasonal weather, libelous competition, and island transportation challenges.
Blake Island, believed to be the birth place of Chief Seattle, was discovered by Captain George Vancouver who explored and charted Puget Sound in 1792. But the island wasn't named until 1841, for George Smith Blake, the officer in charge of a U.S. Coast Survey of the time. An 1855 treaty signed by Chief Seattle gave the 475-acre island to the U.S. territory of Washington. The Chinook word Tillicum means "friendly people", an apt name for a place that exposes visitors to an overview of the Northwest Coast Indians.
Original sketch for Tillicum Village show,
"Dance On The Wind."
Courtesy Greg Thompson Productions.
Dance On The Wind" is a
combination of myth and magic.
Photo courtesy Greg Thompson Productions.
In 1991 Seattle's Greg Thompson Productions was brought in to enhance the native Indian dance program. Thompson began with a vision of an elaborate stage set of cedar trees, rocks, a majestic Totem Pole, a glowing fire—all dominated by a timeless full moon in a star-scattered night sky. On April 2, 1992 "Dance On The Wind" officially opened to spellbound audiences and official approval of Native American elders.
Chad Charlie, who's been in the show for six months, says his favorite part is "dancing. I do all the dances." He says masks are carved of cedar, alder or maple, and the average one weighs about 45 pounds. "The biggest one, 'big beak' weighs 55 pounds."
Here's how to make the beak snap.
Chad grew up visiting Blake Island and Tillicum Village, where his cousin worked. "My cousin trained me in the dances. I mainly do Crooked Beak, Ancestral, Beast, and the Parade of Masks." He shows a young visitor, Colin, how to snap the beak, making a loud wooden clapping sound.
Roy Williams from a Vancouver Island tribe, "Tseshaht", presents a salmon cooking demonstration: he slits the salmon, spreads it on the skewers and adds them to the circle around the fire. "The last fifteen minutes you turn the skin side towards the fire," he says. What is smoked salmon? Roy explains that this cooking method differs from that which produces smoked salmon, which is "smoked in a smokehouse." Duh!
A salmon preparation demonstration.
We wander outdoors where a grassy sward facing the water is populated with picnic tables and barbecue stands. Snow-covered Mount Rainier looms to the East. Cedar-covered group areas with fire pits are available to reserve for family picnics or special events. The nature trail into the woods has plenty of markers; it's one hour to walk the trail around the entire island.
But instead of a hike we opt for ice cream and shopping. Tillicum's Snack Bar features civilized items like Chai Tea, ice cream, coffee, espresso, java milk shakes, cup of noodles, corn dogs, waffles, trail mix and beef jerky. The Gift Gallery offers one-of-a-kind treasures representing different Native American tribes, many items handcrafted by the Tillicum Village staff.
Precisely at 7:30 p.m. the Argosy toots to alert people it's time to return to the boat; we're back on the pier in Seattle by 8:30 p.m., still feeling stuffed with delicious salmon, the summer sunset at our backs.
From its inception Tillicum Village has been a family affair. Besides the Hewitt family, the Max and Nellie George, Hycinth and Winnefred David, and Otis and Mary Baxter families have dedicated years of their lives and contributed a wealth of art and knowledge to Tillicum Village. Today second, third and even fourth generation employees populate the staff. While Tillicum Village was built and is operated with private funds, the facility is leased and operated in conjunction with the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.
Tillicum Village Salmon
Bake, Cruise, & Show
For reservations or info call 206-933-8600 or 800-426-1205 or
Boat cruise only is available for those who want to camp, hike and explore Blake Island.
Call 206-933-8600 or
To reserve a covered group picnic area: Call 888-226-7688
Parking tip: We parked our car in a multi-story parking garage under the viaduct across the street from the waterfront, $20 for the evening.
Back home, we're telling all our friends how much we enjoyed this award-winning, traditionally baked salmon Potlatch dinner, the magical stage production, the arts and crafts demonstrations and the beauty of Blake Island's beaches and hiking trails.
Feaqture and photos, except where noted, by Carolyn Proctor, Jetsetters Magazine Feature Editor.