Staying Power

The popular Tillicum tour continues to bring travelers up close with Native American culture

By: Marty Wentzel

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Boats bring clients to Tillicum Village.
A trip to Tillicum Village takes clients to an idyllic island they might never see otherwise and teaches them about a fascinating culture they might never encounter.

Since it opened in 1962, this family-owned attraction has drawn millions of guests to Blake Island accessible only by private boat or the Tillicum tour to learn about the timeless traditions of the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest.

According to Tillicum Village senior vice president Roberta Greer, attendance ranges from 60,000-100,000 visits each year. On a recent sunny day, my family and I decided to find out what gives Tillicum Village such staying power. We headed to the Seattle waterfront, boarded the Argosy Cruise ship Goodtime II at Pier 55 and chose a seat on one of the breezy inner decks.

The boat ride alone was worth the price of admission. We soaked up sensational views of the Olympic Mountains to the west, while snow-topped Mt. Rainier floated 14,000 feet above the horizon to the south. Sailboats and ferries dotted the sparkling waters of Elliott Bay, and vivid parasails floated above.

Forty-five minutes later, we pulled up to the dock of Blake Island, an uninhabited state park said to be the birthplace of Chief Seattle. Flanking the shore was an enormous cedar longhouse modeled in the traditional style of the Northwest Native American tribes, and stately totems stood watch over the proceedings.

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Performers in the Tillicum Village
stage show “Dance on the Wind”.
The men and women who work at Tillicum a Chinook word that means “friendly people” are members of Northwest tribes, intent on preserving and sharing the traditions of their ancestors. As we walked up the path toward the longhouse, they greeted us with small bowls of steaming clams in a salty broth. After eating the sweet meat, they told us to put the shells on the ground and stomp on them, great fun in itself.

Three massive buffet tables awaited us inside the longhouse. As we stood in line, we studied historic photos of a Northwest smokehouse, looked at maps of the region and watched a craftsman demonstrate how to carve a mask out of cedar. Distracted by an enticing aroma, I turned to see great slabs of king salmon baking on cedar posts over alder-wood fires in traditional preparation.

We loaded up our platters with the moist pink fish, alongside red potatoes, wild rice, warm dark bread and a bounty of fixings from the salad bar. It’s an all-you-can-eat affair, and our clan made good use of that opportunity, washing it down with lemonade and water (beer and wine are available for an extra charge). The dessert a salmon-shaped wedge of chocolate wrapped up the meal.

Tillicum’s dining room can accommodate hundreds of visitors, who sit at long tables arranged so that everyone has a good view of the stage. The elaborate set resembled a Pacific Northwest forest, and as the lights dimmed, the staff, dressed in colorful costumes, took to the stage to perform dances of the Native Americans who settled between the Columbia River and Alaska. Revamped in 1992 by Greg Thompson Productions, the presentation, called “Dance on the Wind,” captured just the right mix of entertainment, education and respect, from the welcoming Paddle Dance to rhythmic moves showcasing spectacular ceremonial masks.

After the show, some folks perused the gift shop with its clothes, art, books, jewelry, music and crafts. Others, like us, headed outside to enjoy the natural beauty of Blake Island, which boasts 16 miles of trails, a gorgeous beach within easy walking distance and frequent sightings of deer.

According to Greer, in 2008 the attraction will add classes in Native American drum and mask carving, and beading demonstrations in the longhouse. In the coming summer months, steel drum music will enliven the evening cruises. But otherwise, the overall Tillicum Village package remains much the same as its original concept, which Greer called “a total experience, a treasure that can be counted on.”

On the ride home, the Seattle skyline loomed large and impressive as the Goodtime II pulled up to the pier. I stepped off the boat and back into the modern world, but I won’t soon forget the smell of the cedar longhouse, the taste of alder-planked salmon and the mesmerizing sights and sounds of authentic Native American dances.


Tillicum Village

The four-hour tour includes a boat cruise, salmon buffet dinner and Northwest Coast Native American dance performance. Tours run daily May-September, with a limited schedule during October, November, December, March and April. No regular tours in January and February.

Clientele: Travelers interested in Native American culture, student groups, seniors, educational and environmental groups, conference and association groups.

Rates: $79 per adult (ages 13-59), $72 per senior (60 and older), $30 per child (ages 5-12), free for children ages 4 and younger.

Commission: Call for details.