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Originally published Thursday, July 30, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Skokomish Tribe reclaims its land, breath

In reclaiming the ancestral names of their village sites, Skokomish tribal members regain their full breath, which they say was weakened when they lost their land generations ago.

Seattle Times staff reporter

CAMP CUSHMAN, Mason County —

This lakeside vacation spot has long been known as Camp Cushman. But Wednesday, it was once again named Place Where Songs Come From, as Skokomish tribal members gathered to ceremonially reclaim their ancestral names for lands being returned to them.

Tribal members and non-Indian friends carried ceremonial red staffs into the lake's blue waters, where they stood side by side, beating time with the staffs, as drummers drummed and sang a sacred song. Then leaders of the rite called out for the first time in generations the name for this village site, with its longhouse and burial ground, long lost under the floodwaters of two dams downstream.

Skokomish spiritual leader Delbert Miller said the handmade staffs they used evoked the staff used by The Changer to create the world at the beginning of time and infuse the world with one breath.

Ever since their lands passed out of tribal hands in the late 1880s, tribal members have been short of that breath, Miller said. Reclaiming the lands and the names of their village sites restores the Skokomish people and their lands to a wholeness not felt in generations, Miller said.

"We are reclaiming our breath," he said, a bittersweet gift, born of decades of struggle. "By reclaiming and reannouncing these names, we are reclaiming our right to our breath and to tell our history. It's [with] a combination of joy and even hope, and sadness that it had to be necessary."

The tribe carried out three ceremonies Wednesday to reclaim the traditional names for three places returned to it under a settlement with Tacoma Power in January: Camp Cushman, now Place Where Songs Come From; Saltwater Park on Hood Canal, now Place of Herring; and the Nalley Farm, now Mouth and Flats of the River.

The reclaiming of the names is a next step in healing losses inflicted by the flooding of village sites, burial grounds and other sacred lands with the creation of two dams on the Skokomish River in 1926 in Mason County.

Tacoma Power and the tribe signed a historic settlement along with state and federal agencies in January to resolve a nearly $6 billion damage claim and a more-than-24-year legal battle over the terms of a long-term re-licensing agreement for the dams. The dams generate enough electricity to power about 25,000 homes.

Under the terms of the agreement, the tribe will receive money and lands from Tacoma Power, including a $12.6 million one-time cash payment; 7.26 percent of the value of electric production from one of the dam's two powerhouses; and transfer of the lands owned by the utility, valued at $23 million.

Deeds for the properties have not been transferred, because the licensing agreement, which includes the settlement, is under review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said Chris Gleason, spokeswoman for Tacoma Power. The agency's review, and transfer of the deeds, is expected by the end of the year.

The tribe has not decided what it will do with the properties once it takes title to the land, Miller said, but it will, as part of the agreement, keep the boat launch at Camp Cushman open to the public. Elsewhere on the properties, "Things will probably stay pretty much as they are," he predicted.

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As songs and the sound of drums lifted on the superheated summer air, revelers chugged by in powerboats, drifted in on swim floats and zipped along on personal watercraft, unaware of the historic moment unfolding.

"We walked right back in here and reclaimed our right to this," tribal member Michael Pavel, who helped lead the ceremony, said afterward. His mother, now deceased, was one of generations of tribal leaders who fought the dams. Now he wants to be part of the generation of tribal members that nurtures the land back to health.

"It is ours to love," Pavel said.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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