Since 1962, Tillicum Village on Blake Island has played host to millions of guests in search of Native American Indian-style dining and cultural entertainment. With boats leaving twice daily through the summer from Pier 55 on the Seattle waterfront, access to Blake Island is made easy on this four-hour tour.
We decided to join the tourists and try this experience for our wedding anniversary. We signed up for the 4.30pm departure (there’s also a lunch tour leaving at 11.30am) and about 40 minutes later we arrived at Blake Island, but not before slowing down to photograph a couple of sea lions sunbathing on a yellow buoy. There’s a bar on board the boat so we were able to enjoy a bottle of Mexican beer although others opted for cocktails as well as ice cream and popcorn snacks, which were popular with the children.
On a sunny August evening, Blake Island is without a doubt, a beautiful place to be. As the boat pulls in to Tillicum Village, the painted longhouse with its winding, clam shell white path and green lawns comes into view. We disembarked and formed a trail up the footpath to the lodge. En route, we were served small cups of fresh clams, steamed in a refreshing butter-onion broth. Visitors are encouraged to dump out the clam shells on the ground where the shards are bleached by the sun and help regenerate the footpath.
The group quickly moved into the longhouse, where an orderly queue is formed for the salmon dinner buffet. The dinner highlight is the salmon. Baked around alder wood fires and held vertically on four-foot cedar stakes, the salmon is prepared according to ancient Indian custom. The fish is cooked around fires inside the lodge although they’re located rather awkwardly behind the serving tables, which means they are somewhat obscured from the queues of diners and by the time we had a chance to pass by the fire pits again, all the salmon and cedar stakes had long since been cleared away.
The salmon and dark bread were delicious but the offerings of red potatoes, wild rice, and salad were a bit uninspiring (the salad looked like it was bought in bulk from Costco). Each person was handed a fish-shaped serving plate ahead of the buffet and the lines certainly moved very quickly so that within minutes, we were seated at one of the dining tables in the long house. At one end of the hall is the stage where the performance takes place and the rest of the space is taken up with dining tables set on raked levels. We were shown to our seats and started to tuck into our meal. Lemonade and water jugs are pre-set on every table but you can order other drinks, including wine and beer, from harried servers running from table to table. When the lady came to our table she immediately overlooked us after the group of four, two seats away from us confirmed that they were OK with lemonade and then she looked a little put out when we caught her attention to ask if we could order a drink. A glass of Cabernet-Merlot is $7 a glass and I must admit that considering the $79 adult ticket price I was a little surprised that they couldn’t provide at least one complimentary drink per person.
Oil lamps decorated the long tables adding a pretty glow to the windowless hall, which is constructed entirely of wood with tall walls painted with giant Indian murals. Each place was set with a jumping salmon-shaped chocolate, which turned out to be the meager dessert offering.
Second helpings at the buffet table were available so we went back for a little more salad and bread by which time almost all the salmon was gone. Shortly after, an emcee announced that the dance presentation would begin shortly so we finished up our food and waited for the lights to dim.
The presentation that followed was a series of dances and reenactments, all set to music and a pre-recorded voiceover. The stage was outfitted as a clearing beside a rock face in the midst of a forest. A statue deer and eagle looked on as the show opened with a kayak being pulled across the stage. Two actors sat in the canoe, pretending to row as the voice of God began the narration. Other attempts at stage mechanics included an opening and closing cave door, a (fake) smoking wood fire centre stage, a rain shower and thunderstorm, and a giant wooden mask, which was lowered from the ceiling at the end of the show and opened up to reveal an inner mask. The show was extremely colourful and illustrated the beauty of various Indian stories, such as the raven who created the sun, moon and stars by dispersing a sacred light source when fleeing from an eagle.
The striking costumes, masks, and props were all impressive but I got the impression that at times, the young actors weren’t taking the show seriously. Many of their actions seemed half-hearted and at the beginning of the show I saw one actor grinning at another, as if he was trying to get a reaction. The presentation was more of a tourist sound and light spectacle and it felt like it was a far cry from any traditional Native American Indian gathering. I’m sure that the simplistic, dynamic presentation has greater tourist and kid appeal but for anyone hoping to see something raw or with real cultural integrity, it was a disappointment. I noticed one spectator had written in big letters in the guest book that it was superficial and I sadly had to agree.
By the time the show ended, our group had only half an hour before the boat was scheduled to leave for the return journey back to Seattle. I was surprised at how fast the time had passed by and disappointed that we had such a short amount of time to explore any of the island trails. We snapped photos of the totem poles and of the hazy view of Mt. Rainier and took a short walk north of Tillicum Village. All too soon the boat was sounding its horn, calling all passengers back to the dock.
The ride back was significantly cooler so we took shelter at the back of the boat. This time the bar was offering Peppermint Patties with schnapps and other tempting nightcaps but we managed to hold back. We were back in town by 8.30pm and as I walked home, I was already planning my next trip to Blake Island. The next time though I hope to make an independent trip with plenty of time to hike around the island and enjoy all that it has to offer. It seems a shame that in a place of such natural beauty and cultural importance that for the most part the Tillicum Village tour has turned into an enclosed experience of artifice and tourist cliché.