Master canoe builder visiting the islands

The Lummi Nation’s presence in the San Juan Islands goes back for hundreds of years.

According to Lummi master canoe builder Dean Washington, they did not just live here seasonally.

“There are many bloodlines (on the Lummi reservation north of Bellingham) that are from the San Juans, not Bellingham,” Washington said. “My family is from the San Juans. My grandfather is buried in the cemetery at the Pearl Little Land.”

Pearl Little land is a site on the north end of San Juan Island that was once a Lummi village and currently has a deeded Lummi cemetery. It is often referred to as Pearl Little Land because Pearl Little, granddaughter to Lummi Chief Tom Suclamlto, was the last Lummi heir to own the property.

Starting on Sunday, Aug. 14, Washington will be at the English Camp to demonstrate building a traditional Lummi traveling canoe. This event is co-sponsored by the National Park Service and Friends of the San Juans as part of the National Park Centennial Celebration. The public is welcome to visit Aug. 14 to 19 from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. The canoe will be 40 feet long, seat six people, and take approximately 120 working hours to construct. This does not include hours waiting for materials to dry and set. On Aug. 25, at English Camp, there will be a ceremony celebrating the Parks birthday, beginning at 2 p.m., during which time the public will have the opportunity to paddle the canoe.

The park currently has a smaller, two-person traveling canoe that was also built by Washington and his team. The hope, he said, is that educational outreach such as this demonstration will teach people about Lummi history and establish a connection between the Lummi and San Juan communities.

“These islands were our cultural grounds until we were put on the reservation,” Washington said.

After his time on San Juan Island, Washington is heading over to Camp Orkila on Orcas, where he will instruct campers about traditional reefnet fishing with canoes. He has taught canoe building to many different tribes, including his own, and to the general public.

Washington said each tribe has their own cultures, and those children should reach out to the elders of their tribes to learn their own way of building and using canoes.

“I can’t teach them that. I only know the Lummi way,” Washington said.

Washington’s foray into canoe building occurred years ago when his brother asked if he would fix his canoe.

“It was just to boards laying on ground,” he laughed.

Through the teachings and guidance of traditional Lummi artists, he repaired the canoe and entered a whole new journey. Today, he teaches canoe building and Lummi history and traditions.

Washington is looking forward to bringing traditional Lummi ceremonies to the San Juans. There were once long houses all over the islands, and he is hoping that one day, as a result of bringing the two communities together, there will again be long houses, where Lummis’ can practice their ceremonies. Washington said there has been talk of building one near Madrona Point on Orcas Island. There are also several possibilities of locations on San Juan, including the San Juan Island National Park, where a Lummi village once stood.

“I want my son to be able to come home,” Washington said.

For more information on the Lummi Nation, visit