Building Community in La Push

La Push Community Immersion Program

Working with the Quileute Nation

After breaking free of busy rush hour traffic leaving Seattle, we drove into a new world—winding narrow roads hugging the rugged coastline, passing through the lush rainforests of Olympic National Park. The rain poured down as we approached La Push late in the night. A group of students from Middlebury College, our Team Leader and myself were excited for the mysteries of the week ahead. 

After having settled into our accommodations at the Shaker Indian Church, it felt as though the entire community came knocking on our door to welcome us. Previous participants had said that visiting La Push was like coming home, and I finally understood what they meant. Neighbors and well-wishers dropped by to thank us for our visit and even offered a box of home-baked cupcakes and upside-down pineapple cake, a welcome treat for weary travelers!

Following the lead of our trusted community partner, Miss Ann, we were introduced to various tribal entities, slowly building a more intricate portrait of both the triumphs and challenges of the Quileute Nation. Several themes emerged over the course of the week, most prominently, treaty rights, climate change and community centered healing. Our learnings began with invitations from Lonesome Creek Tribal Fisheries and the Quileute Department of Natural Resources. Fishing is not only a source of income for the tribe, but an intimate part of its culture and a vital part of ceremonies, celebrations and potlatches. The tribe has raised millions of chinook salmon and steelhead trout since they opened their hatchery in the 70s, attempting to replenish declining wild populations. Our group had the privilege of observing newborn salmon that had recently hatched in their incubators, a rare sight for Xperitas groups that typically travel in the spring and summer. We were also treated to delicious fresh caught trout from Fisherman Gene at the Marina.

Later in the week we joined Miss Ann and her family at the Quileute Healing Drum Circle. Once a week, the tribe gathers to share a community meal, sing traditional songs and dance together—all generations attend, from children to elders. After a birthday ceremony, we were asked to jump in and participate in the dances. We were moved by the invitation and our Middlebury students joined without hesitation. Miss Ann explained that any opportunity to connect to culture, roots and traditions was a path to healing and a source of strength and resiliency for community members to overcome historical trauma. A similar sentiment was shared by Dave Jackson Jr. and his colleagues at the Carving Shed. Together we each carved traditional Quileute paddles in cedar wood to represent our long journeys to La Push. Dave explained that any emotions we were feeling would be captured in the wood we were carving and that positive thoughts were essential to the craft.

Our week in La Push flew by—from spending time with youth at the Teen Center, cooking brunch for the Elders, joining Women’s Talking Circle, to helping clean Transitional Housing cabins. We made unforgettable connections not only with community members but with each other. It was difficult to leave behind the striking beauty of the beaches, the rainforest and the Pacific Ocean. We all marveled at the wildlife we encountered—eagles, seals and elk (and almost some whales who happened to be passing by First Beach). As one student wrote in our team journal “This week was full of learning and understanding, of reaching out and caring for each other. It taught me not only how to be a better ally to indigenous communities around the world, but how to be a person who knows she belongs to a community and is responsible for it.”