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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.
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
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
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
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.