WALKING TOWARD THE START OF A NEW YEAR ON THE WATER – Swinomish Tribal Indian Community members honored their fishermen, their fleet and the salmon in the Salish Sea that make all life possible in our ecosystem. Tribal members, special guests and visitors gathered by the Channel shore for the annual Blessing of the Fleet and First Salmon Ceremony last Thursday.    – Photo by Ken Stern
WALKING TOWARD THE START OF A NEW YEAR ON THE WATER – Swinomish Tribal Indian Community members honored their fishermen, their fleet and the salmon in the Salish Sea that make all life possible in our ecosystem. Tribal members, special guests and visitors gathered by the Channel shore for the annual Blessing of the Fleet and First Salmon Ceremony last Thursday.    – Photo by Ken Stern

Though living in the moment, hundreds paid tribute to the past as they literally stepped into the future during annual Swinomish Blessing of the Fleet and First Salmon ceremonies Thursday.
Following a seafood feast enjoyed by a large crowd that spilled over from the Tribal gym and youth center to an outdoor tent in the adjacent parking lot, a procession stretching across Pioneer Parkway walked to Swinomish Channel off Moorage Way for an honored ritual marking the start of fishing season.
The day’s many guests included a handful of state lawmakers who joined with Rep. Debra Lekanoff, the Swinomish government affairs director, as well as Seattle City Light general manager and CEO Debra Smith.
“We’ve been doing it for years,” Tribal Senate Chair Brian Cladoosby said afterward, “and we’re handing this tradition down to our kids.”
Elders and youth alike – the latter group including Native members of the La Conner High Class of 2019 – were formally recognized as part of the shoreline gathering, one steeped in spirituality and aimed at preserving for future generations links between the sea and table that have long defined Swinomish culture and its economy.
For La Conner Elementary fourth graders, who were special guests at the event, it was an opportunity to see lessons from the pages of their textbooks come to life.
“We’re studying Washington state history, learning about our first peoples,” said teacher Cammy Alumbres. “So we’re very, very fortunate to have this experience.”
Students in the La Conner High Culture Through Cuisine class also attended.
“There’s no better tie-in for us locally,” said teacher Peter Voorhees, who along with Smith was selected to officially witness the blessing ceremony.
“This is my first Blessing of the Fleet,” said Voorhees. “I’ve wanted to come for a long time. I’m so honored to be here and be part of this. The generosity to feed all these people is amazing.”
The afternoon walking procession was led by the Swinomish Canoe Family and members of the Edwards family, who sang and drummed the entire route. Cedar boughs and four salmon carcasses, integral parts of the ceremony, were carried to the blessing site.
Tribal elder and retired La Conner Middle School Principal Ray Mitchell explained through the Salmon People Story the importance of returning salmon to the water, a point other speakers reinforced, noting it demonstrates honor and assures continuation of the migratory cycle.
“When we go out on the water,” said Tribal Senate Vice-Chair Brian Porter, “we can’t just take. We have to give back.”
A spirit of sharing was evident throughout.
First, there was the bountiful luncheon, coordinated by Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission Chair Lorraine Loomis and prepared and served by members of various Tribal departments.
“Some of our fishermen,” added Tribal Senator J.J. Wilbur, “were the ones who went out and got this food that’s on the tables before you.”
There were also repeated references to the Swinomish custom of passing down to its youth lessons on how to fish well and safely on local waters.
“I started fishing at the age of seven,” Swinomish Senator Joe Williams said. “That’s when I was taught.”
Swinomish Senator Steve Edwards, who chairs the Tribal Community’s Fisheries and Game Commission, echoed Williams, praising those who take the time to teach young people to fish.
The Blessing of the Fleet and First Salmon Ceremony is a key aspect of that education, they agreed.
“This,” Williams stressed, “is the most important part of the day – the blessing. The feast is the festivities. The blessing recognizes what our ancestors did and the importance of keeping it going.”
Wilbur agreed.
“We honor our elders,” he said, “who not only taught us how to fish, but made decisions on behalf of our fishermen and families.”
The focus on teaching and learning wasn’t lost on Voorhees, 
“As a teacher,” he said, “I really appreciate the emphasis on sharing knowledge with the younger generation.”
In this case it’s knowledge meant not to last just a lifetime, but to extend through the ages.