“Welcome to the Puyallup reservation,” says Bill Sterud, chair of the Puyallup tribal council, while standing in the middle of Ben Gilbert Park in downtown Tacoma. “This is it.”
On Friday morning, July 27, the sun was shining, and it was hard to imagine how the industrial area was once nothing but lush greenery, home to the Native Americans. But it was, and still is their home, and will finally be recognized by the permanent installment of the Puyallup Nation flag in the Tacoma City Council Chambers.
“What a moment for our city,” Mayor Victoria Woodards said before pausing to fight back tears. “As I stood there and they played their gathering song, I looked at the picture next to us, and I looked at our tribal members standing here, and I thought to myself, what a long way we’ve come. But I also thought to myself, how much work we still have to do.”
For many tribal members, especially those who remember the land claim settlement between the Puyallup Nation and Tacoma in the 80s and 90s, the flag raising is special, because it recognizes this land does belong to the Puyallup people, unlike the claims the City of Tacoma tried to make in the past.
This historic moment came just a day before the 2018 Paddle to Puyallup, a traditional Native American canoe gathering that brings dozens of tribes from along the coasts of Washington, Canada, Oregon, California, and even New Zealand to the landing site in Puyallup. The canoe gathering is held at a different reservation every year, and this is the first time Puyallup has hosted since the 1998.
“We have been working on this since August of 2016, so a good two years of putting things together, doing our planning, and working with the community,” said Connie McCloud, Culture Director of the Puyallup Tribe. “Our canoe family meets every Tuesday evening and we have culture night every Thursday. We work with our families; we work with our communities.”
The theme of this year’s gathering was “Honoring Our Medicine,” a nod to the role the water plays in the lives of coastal Native Americans. McCloud waws choked up talking about how many tribes have really taken the theme to heart and have gone above and beyond to clean the waters by where they live, removing pollutants from the paths canoers would take.
“Each of our communities, each of our canoes, are coming here and bringing their medicine, both for themselves, and for the communities,” McCloud said.