Rock Bottom Line | Penn Cove Water Festival: Celebrating What’s Here and What No Longer Is

Posted in Blogs, Festivals, History

May 24, 2017

It was as perfect a spring day as we could hope for in Coupeville. Azure sky, a light breeze on Penn Cove, temperature about 70 degrees, Mount Baker looming regally in the distance. Weather so sweet that you just want to smile, whistle a happy tune, and hug the person next to you.

That’s how it felt last Saturday at the Penn Cove Water Festival, the 25th annual occurrence since the festival was revived in 1992. I sometimes avoid the big touristy events we hold here on the Rock; I much prefer home gardening to crowds and traffic.

But the Water Festival is different, and that’s why I never miss it. It’s a wonderful reflection of Whidbey’s diverse culture today, while at the same time offering a lovely, if perhaps wistful, salute to cultures that used to be here. Granted, local merchants created the original festival in 1930 mostly as a way to draw more tourists and their automobiles to Coupeville in the spring, and its revived version still draws a big crowd. Several thousand people showed up Saturday.

But the main attraction of the festival has always been the dozens of Native Americans from Northwest Washington tribes – some of whose ancestors once lived on Penn Cove – who come to talk about their heritage and race their canoes on the cove.

Opening blessing (Photo by Harry Anderson)

I arrived just as a young woman was singing the opening blessing in the language of the Salish peoples. Then Water Festival President Vicky Reyes offered a welcome in English to the gathered tourists and locals outside the Island County Historical Museum.

“Today is a celebration of the many cultures that are here today; we are from many backgrounds and cultures,” she said. “But most of all it’s a celebration of the original cultures of Penn Cove and Whidbey Island.”

I thought that was a great way to describe the Water Festival. I stood next to a man in a Buddhist robe with two small children. Not far away was an African-American family from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. And in the back was a priest wearing a clergy collar talking with an Asian-American family.

As I listened to the singing, which seeks a blessing from the Salish peoples’ creator, and then waited for the canoe races to begin, I let my mind wander back to what it may have been like here a couple centuries ago – before the European explorers sailed into Puget Sound in the late 1700s and the white settlers staked their land claims beginning in the mid-1800s.

Racers carrying their canoe to the water (Photo courtesy of Penn Cove Water Festival)

At least four Salish nations once shared our Rock: Skagit tribes in the central and north, Snohomish in the south. Food was abundant from the sea, the beach, and the land, and that helped the nations here build villages with strong social orders. These were not nomadic or marauding peoples. Land, water, fishing, and hunting rights were highly developed.  By the time George Vancouver arrived in 1792, there may have been several thousand people living on the Rock – which Skagits called Tschakolecy, or land of abundance. It’s estimated that as many as 1,000 canoes plied the waters around Whidbey Island.

As young Native Americans raced their modern canoes on Penn Cove Saturday in tribute to their ancestors, I could feel a real sense of pride in keeping their traditions alive. I imagined that a potlatch held 250 years ago on these same waters likely had the same positive energy and spirit.

Racers from local tribes on the water in Penn Cove (Photo courtesy of Penn Cove Water Festival)

But then I realized, with more than a little sadness, that none of those young people in canoes racing on Saturday actually live on Whidbey. They had come from all over the region, but most had no relatives here to greet them or any other connection with this place. Within 125 years of the European exploration, virtually all the native peoples who lived on the Rock were gone. Many succumbed to smallpox, influenza, syphilis, and other diseases brought by the Europeans.

By 1870, the Washington territorial government had signed treaties relocating most Puget Sound native peoples to reservations. Most of the relatively small number of surviving Skagits in central and northern Whidbey eventually moved to the Swinomish reservation near La Conner – which is ironic, since they had not even been invited to the talks between the territorial government and mainland Skagits that led to the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855, which created the reservations.

Even with the hustle-bustle of the vendor booths, food carts, musical performances, and canoe races at the festival Saturday, I did feel something of the gentle hovering spirit of those first people – the ones who may have lived here 5,000 years or more before they were “contacted” by Europeans, who have been here for less than 250 years.

And I realized that a culture gone but still celebrated is a culture not forgotten.

The early days of the Penn Cove Water Festival (Photo courtesy of Penn Cove Water Festival)


Gatherings of boats for other reasons eventually led to races. (Photo courtesy of the Penn Cove Water Festival)

Once upon a time, Harry Anderson made an honest living as a reporter, editor, and columnist at the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in central Whidbey where he spends his time gardening and ruminating on things that interest him.


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  1. Thanks so much for this wonderful and thoughtful article on the Penn Cove Water Festival! You capture so well the intent behind the revival of this event, and why our community has been able to keep it going for 26 years.

    It is truly a unique festival, and the cultural history of our area is important to keep alive for generations to come. I am so thankful for and in awe of Ricky and Ricardo Reyes and their huge crew of volunteers who have done such a wonderful job of organizing the event and making it happen every year, and hope the community continues to support the Water Festival ~ it is near and dear to my heart, and remains the best day of every year for me!

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