A Journey: Cedar Chapter
The Maiden of Deception Pass
Ken and Linda. They sat amid the chaos of books, posters, gadgets and
knickknacks that constituted, and still does, Bill’s obsessive museum of local
and cosmic history. The small house is also Bill’s home, so he is always much
more at ease there than anybody else, maneuvering his wheelchair through an
obstacle course of furniture and piles of toys that confounds all his guests.
His guests that evening didn’t seem to mind, and listened patiently to Bill’s
pitch, his idea to make and install a totem pole at the state park. They were
strangers to me, and I had no idea that they would both become my close friends,
and indeed the stout young man and I would subsequently call each other brother.
Ken and Linda are Samish, he was the chairman of his tribe, and she an advisor.
He was very serious, and talked with authority of tradition, and respect for
elders, and protocol. She had a quiet, confident bearing, and when Bill
introduced her as “Indian princess”, I thought she smiled briefly.
The subject of discussion, and the reason Bill had invited me to join them, was
a magical story, The Maiden of Deception Pass. It is the primary Samish heroine
legend, and at the time of our meeting, the Samish were in hiding, being deeply
involved in a battle with the US government to regain their status as a
recognized Indian nation. Nobody outside the tribe knew the story, nor the
prominent place the Samish had played in the history of our region, northern
Puget Sound. Bill had come across the story in his research, and thought it
should be told, and that a totem pole would be a great way to commemorate it, at
the site of the ancient Samish village in what was now Deception Pass State
Park. Bill was just beginning his campaign to flood the town with public art
projects that celebrate local history, and he rightly put the Samish story at
the top of his list.
Bill had pitched the notion of the totem pole to a Samish council meeting, that
I had not attended, the previous month, and he had been received somewhat
coolly. The tribal council members were a little suspicious of outsiders, and
some had resented Bill’s intrusion into their world. Ken, however, had glimpsed
an opportunity to begin to make the Samish situation more widely known, and even
thought it may be a way to gather support among the white community. Shrewd
At the time, I was struggling to make a living woodcarving, mostly doing boat
signs and occasional copies of Indian designs. Bill thought I should meet Ken
and Linda, and maybe bid on doing this carving job for them, if he could
convince them it was really in their best interest to do so. Somehow the fact
that I was a white guy, with no connection to the Samish, was not relevant to
Bill, only that I could carve things, and was known to work very cheaply. It
did matter to Ken however, and one of the first things he said to me was that
the Samish had a proud history of woodcarving, that one Samish family in
particular was well known for their canoes and totem poles, but had nobody at
the moment practicing the craft, and that if I was chosen to do this work for
them, I would have to submit to specific guidance and training by certain elders
before I could proceed. In fact, he said, I may not be approved at all, and
would have to undergo some kind of testing just to see if I could qualify. Now
that certainly got my attention, and I took it as a challenge I had to meet. I
had no idea what was coming.
During the next many months, Ken taught me how to purify myself in ritual baths.
These are cold soaks in mountain streams, and later in the saltchuck, in which
the water sucks the breath out of you, and you naturally respond by shouting,
the shouts becoming sometimes snatches of song. The song is drawn out of the
body by force, and only by letting the consciousness join with the senses, and
pouring forth a voice into the dawn, do you begin to be aware of the life giving
power flowing through the rushing water, the overhanging trees, the shivering
body in the stream. Focusing attention on the four compass points in turn, you
holler greetings and thanks. Finally we climb onto the bank, feet numb and skin
tingling, switching ourselves with cedar boughs to stimulate the blood flow and
break the spell of the cold water.
Ken, me, Linda, Mary, and Grandma Laura
Grandma Laura graced me with talk of hanging out in the carving shed while her
father-in-law Charlie Edwards carved canoes, of the work ethic and the devotion
to doing things the proper way. She tells of the last great Samish monument he
made, during the 1930s, when the government sponsored a totem pole for the
Swinomish reservation, to tell some of the old stories, and Charlie made it
two-sided, with images of each tribe on separate sides. The bottom figure on
the Samish side was KoKwalAlWoot, the Maiden of Deception Pass, and this was my
first bit of research, hearing her tell the story itself, along with the
description of how he had carved it.
Many lessons followed, and I slowly came to realize what was really expected of
me. I was terrified. How could I do justice to this magical tale, how could I
hope to please all these people, how I could learn enough of their ways in a few
short months to begin to do this work the proper way? Ken made it simple. He
said “We don’t expect you to become Indian. We expect you to honor our story
and tell it as best you can. She will guide you if you let her, and we will
keep you safe. If you believe, it will happen.”
I believed. It happened. The Maiden of Deception Pass changed my life forever.
She continues to protect and nurture her people, through the long years during
which they battled the government and finally won back their status as a treaty
tribe. Some people say the Samish Nation was saved from extinction by
KoKwalAlWoot. I was blessed to be able to carve the cedar representation of
Her. During the year that this project took, the tribe shed their cloak of
secrecy, and came out into the open in the white man’s world. They raised up
their heads and looked around, and found many new friends and allies, and by the
time of the potlatch for the dedication of the story pole, a tide of friendship
and support lifted them up, and carried them to their victory.
Through it all, my new brother Ken took time out from his legal warfare to
maintain his friendship with my family and me. He continued to teach me, and
listened too, and we shared many a tear. Ken passed over to the other side last
year, and I really miss him. He is with the Maiden now, and when I go to the
cliffs above the swirling water I can visit them both.
Ken’s life is like the cedar tree he loved and respected so much. Cedarwood is
soft, its bark is thin and wispy, but it endures relentlessly. Some of the
Grandmother Cedars have lived 1500 years and more. And they give of themselves
constantly. The bark made clothing, blankets, and baskets, and the roots
yielded cordage. The trunks became house posts and canoes, and gave planks to
make house walls and roofs, bentwood boxes, dishes, and ceremonial gear. Cedar
smoke is the conduit between this world and that of the Ancestors. Cedar, like
Salmon, is central to the Native cultures of this part of the world, and not
only for the physical products it provides. Emotionally and spiritually, Cedar
is the living elemental connection to Mother Earth that guides their activities
and nourishes their souls.
Sometimes, if you wander enough in the forests of the Pacific NorthWest, you may
find the Sacred Circles created by Ghost Cedars. These are spaces surrounding a
long dead Grandmother, now home to a circle of her babies, maybe 100 years old,
who form the edge of the opening in the forest canopy that she left behind when
she died and eventually fell down. Ken also has left an opening in the
community he served, surrounded by all the souls he nourished, and who now
thrive on the light and vitality he has left them.
Her home, Rosario Beach