Seattle-based Argosy Cruises has revamped the dinner show at its Tillicum Village cultural center/tourist attraction and injected more authentic Native American culture from Puget Sound-area Coast Salish tribes.

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BLAKE ISLAND — President Clinton came here. So did King Olaf V of Norway. And the island’s longhouse, with one of the longest-running theatrical shows in the Northwest, draws tens of thousands every summer.

Tillicum Village is part native cultural center, part dinner theater, nestled between Vashon and Bainbridge islands. The production “Dance on the Wind,” exploring mostly the dances and traditions of British Columbia tribes, has been performed here for 18 years.

That may qualify for some sort of performance record. Or be considered an iconic show not to be tinkered with.

But Argosy Cruises CEO Kevin Clark spent $1.7 million upgrading the complex, built a new stage and recast the show to include more legends and dances from local tribes.

“Many people said they have been there, done that. After 18 years, it needed to be refreshed,” he said. “We needed something to attract both young and old.”

You know, he added, even “Cats,” the musical, closed eventually.

Started in 1962 by the late Bill Hewitt, a professional caterer, the village became a major summer tourist attraction, with tour buses unloading hundreds of visitors to the waterfront for the 45-minute boat ride to Blake Island, a state park. During the golden years, Tillicum Village drew 80,000 to 85,000 visitors every spring and summer, hitting the 100,000 attendance mark in 1978.

The cultural program and dance show features a buffet with the signature dish, king salmon, cooked over a roaring alder-wood fire. To work off that meal, visitors can hike along a flat trail by the water or roam and snap pictures around the 475-acre island. On a clear day, you can see Mount Rainier and the Space Needle.

Ups and downs

In 1993 President Clinton hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum at Tillicum Village. Buzz was never better. But in the last 10 years, attendance dropped — due to the recession, to rising transportation costs and to the Sept. 11 attack that scared tourists away, the Hewitt family said.

Mark Hewitt, son of the founder, said his family sold Tillicum Village to Argosy Cruises in March 2009 to ensure their father’s legacy would live on. It was a logical acquisition for Argosy, which had long provided transportation to the island.

By last year, the annual visitor count was down to around 50,000. Argosy officials worried the program was getting stale. To reflect the changing times, Clark added healthier fare and more local produce to the buffet, and more special effects and pizazz to the show.

Segments saved from the previous production focus mostly on the culture and dances of the tribes north of Vancouver Island.

Added were the myths and dances of the Coast Salish, which includes the native people from around Puget Sound.

“The totem poles, much of the regalia, the masks — they come from the B.C. province and Southeast Alaska, with some Washington components,” said Clark. “My desire was to add the Coast Salish tribes” to localize the story and make it more relevant to the Seattle area.

Chief Seattle’s birthplace

The island is an ancestral area of the Suquamish Tribe. Chief Seattle, the city’s namesake, is believed to have been born on Blake Island in the 1780s.

For script guidance, officials sought advice from the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, at the University of Washington, and from tribal members, including the popular storyteller, historian and community leader Roger Fernandes, a member of the Lower Elwha Band of the Klallam Indians.

Fernandes was ecstatic. The more northerly tribes’ “culture is beautiful and powerful. But they are not from here,” he said. “Our culture needs to be shared in this show, too.”

Creative director John Schuler recruited Fernandes to play the shaman to give the show credibility with the local tribes and also to help with the narrative flow.

“I thought the old show was not as clear a story and delivery. It was loose and random” and required some understanding of native culture and history, Schuler said.

Schuler wanted a show that the average tourist with little knowledge of native culture could follow.

The new show offers more flexibility, allowing for new dance numbers or narration to be swapped out to keep the show fresh, if needed, he said. Or the theme could be simplified to tailor to school field-trip groups.

Honoring the spirits

The new 23-minute program focuses on how the natives revered and rely on the spiritual world to protect them. The dances performed are meant to honor the spirits.

The show debuted in April with fewer dancers and dance numbers but more storytelling, with images of ghosts and holograms projected onto the stage.

Two popular live dance numbers, the “Terrible Beast,” with a bearskin-clad dancer, and the signature finale, with three dancers in 45- to 60-pound masks, remain.

Added was “The Spinning Water Dance,” with two women of the Suquamish Tribe covered in blue cloth, floating around like the water of Puget Sound.

Water has special significance to the Coast Salish people, said Fernandes. It carries the salmon and nurtures the cedar. The dance, he said, is an expression of our spiritual bond with the element.

The water dance and Fernandes’ role as a shaman were filmed last winter at Broadway Performance Hall. They are projected onto the stage in hologramlike images.

Fernandes also tells two famous stories, or “teachings,” of the Coast Salish people, including “Pushing Up the Sky,” about how the Duwamish, the Suquamish and the Snohomish gathered to work together to lift the sky and lift them out of darkness, an allegory of their strength in unity.

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or