The 20th Penn Cove Water Festival was dedicated to the life and memory of Charlie Sneatlum.

Many thanks to Charlie's family for bringing him to Coupeville to bless the Festival and Canoe Races with his presence in 2006 and 2007. His words, songs, and smile still waft over the waters of Penn Cove~

Photo by Lynda Imburgia

Charlie Sneatlum drums and sings his family song to bless the 2006 Coupeville Canoe Races

Photo courtesy of
the Sneatlum family/Muckleshoot tribe

Charles Sneatlum with mother

The Penn Cove Water Festival Association honors the life and history of the Chiefs of Coupeville:

Chief Charlie Snakelum (Snatelum) (Sneatlum)
Chief Charlie George
Chief Charlie (lil George)
Charlie George (Tenas)

History of the Penn Cove Water Festival

1930s Photos courtesy of Island County Historical Society.

The Mission of the Penn Cove Water Festival Association is to continue an annual revival of the historic Coupeville Water Festival by bringing families together to enjoy Native American canoe racing, entertainment, crafts and culture and by giving them a chance to learn about, appreciate, and protect the environment in which we all live.

The first Coupeville Festival with Native American Canoe Races took place in 1930, organized by a Coupeville businessman to draw more tourists to scenic Whidbey Island. Only three 11-man canoes raced then, but in later years up to 22 tribes attended the festivals with most participating in the canoe races. Parades, sack races, pie eating contests, and tribal dancing were added to the festivities. Island residents baked loaves of bread as gifts for the Indian families who traveled to and camped on the Island for the festivals.

Keep in mind that before white contact, it is believed that the Northwest Native American population in Puget Sound was between 10,000 and 20,000, and that there was most likely at least one boat for every ten people. That would be 1,000-2,000 canoes out on the Sound on a regular basis.

Fleets of boats would gather for fish runs, at portage sites, in safe harbor during storms, and for defense during warfare. It is not surprising that the gathering of boats led to competitive racing.

To further your perspective, before 1940, the populations of Coupeville, Oak Harbor, and Langley all hovered between 250-350. Also remember that until 1913, there was no bridge to Camano. Until the mid-1920's, there was no ferry service to the islands, and until 1935 there was no bridge at Deception Pass...you got to the islands on a steamer, or you used your own boat.

By 1930, however, cars were becoming common, and Whidbey businessmen were touting the island as a wonderful place to visit and tour by car. The scenery and the views had become the commodity of interest, and the Water Festival was a way to expose people from the cities to the offerings of the island. The Native American canoe races provided the main event, and parades, sack races, egg and spoon contests, pie eating contests, "prettiest baby" contests, tribal dancing, and prize drawings rounded out the festivities.

World War II brought an end to the Canoe Races. There were several attempts to revive them in the 1970s and 1980s, but it was not until the Washington State University/Island County Beach Watchers volunteers put on the first Penn Cove Water Festival in 1992 that the canoe races were once again an annual event in Coupeville. Beach Watchers produced the Festival for 12 years, with an emphasis on education about the environment and water quality.

In 2004, a group of Whidbey Island community members formed the nonprofit Penn Cove Water Festival Association, to plan and produce the annual event. The Festival takes place on one Saturday in early May, depending on which Saturday has the best tides for the canoe races. The races have expanded to include more categories, including the large family journey canoes. The Water Festival provides the setting for Northwest tribes to share their heritage with tribal dancing, singing, storytelling, native artists' booths and demonstrations, fry bread and salmon cooked over an alder wood fire. And Island residents still bake loaves of bread as gifts for the Indians.

Since 1993, each Water Festival has been indelibly associated with an image from the fertile mind of Coupeville artist Roger Purdue, working in the North Coast native art tradition of his Tsimshian heritage. The donation of Roger's art talent received the reproduction it deserved in the hands of Carol Peralta, who produced the T-shirts, art prints and posters sold to raise money for the Festival. Her passing in late 2005 was a great loss to the Water Festival and the Island community.

Another great loss is that Roger passed away in 2014. Before that he had donated 15 additional drawings to the Penn Cove Water Festival, so that we could continue to use his art. Board Member and graphic designer, Jackie Feusier, has worked with Roger's widow, Sara, each year since, to choose a design and work on color schemes to continue his legacy with the Water Festival and honor his work.

The Native American Canoe Races continue to be the main attraction, local merchants still hope for throngs of mainlanders to visit their shops and use their services, and one of the major commodities remains our scenery and views of the water and surrounding mountain ranges. But with the enthusiasm, expertise, and support of the Beach Watchers and other community members, the festival has also become a celebration of our water resources.

Residents and tourists alike benefit from a healthy Sound, lakes, groundwater, and aquifers. What's more, we all benefit from the salmon, otters, whales, shellfish, and other critters that live in, or because of, those waters. To promote awareness of, appreciation for and information on how to protect this environment, the Festival provides space to many of the Island's non-profit organizations for educational displays, as part of our Mission (see Main Page for our Mission Statement).

The contributions of so many individuals and organizations to the Penn Cove Water Festival, both financially and as volunteers, is deeply appreciated. If you would like to help in any way Continuing the Tradition, contact the Penn Cove Water Festival Association at P.O. Box 393, Coupeville WA 98239, individual Association members listed on this site or email us at: penncovewaterfestival@gmail.com.

So the Water Festival continues. For more information on the tribes that have participated, or how the festival came to be, or how the races turned out in years past, or any number of other festival-related topics, stop by the Island County Historical Museum.

For a look at the role Honorworks has played in keeping the Penn Cove Water Festival alive, please see HonorWorks Presents: Penn Cove Water Festival

Photos courtesy of the Island County Historical Society


Photo by Kasia Pierzga / The Whidbey Examiner

Tom Ellis, Vicky Reyes, Kyle Waterman, Lisa Haas and Teresa Ellis are among the new board members for the Penn Cove Water Festival.

Festival aims to sharpen focus on Native traditions
By Betty Freeman, Examiner Staff Writer

Coupeville's annual Penn Cove Water Festival could have an expanded focus on the Island's Native cultural past thanks to the group of volunteers who have taken over leadership of the event.

"We're trying to go back to as Native and natural as we can," said Vicky Reyes, a new board member for the festival.

Reyes noted that the event's theme for this year is "Legacy of Whidbey Island," reflecting Native tribes' longtime connection to the Island.

Each May, the festival offers a wide variety of activities that carry on traditions of using the Island's marine waterways for food and recreation. The event includes tribal canoe races, arts and crafts, storytelling, music, dancing, exhibits, Native American fry bread and salmon, and children's activities.

Since 1993, the event has been organized by the Penn Cove Water Festival Association, a small group of dedicated volunteers who worked throughout the year to create a day of celebrating Whidbey Island's water, cultural heritage and history.

But after putting in a lot of hard work for so many years, longtime festival board members were ready to "retire" and hand the reins over to new volunteers. An open meeting was held last fall to recruit new volunteers to fill the association's leadership positions.

Lisa Haas, who moved to Coupeville two years ago and has experience staging tribal festivals in northern California, has stepped into the festival president's role. Also new to the board are Teresa Ellis and Kyle Waterman. Reyes agreed to take on the secretary job, Tom Ellis will be treasurer, and longtime festival volunteer Molly Hughes will organize the annual dinner for tribal participants and volunteers.

Longtime board members Lou Labombard and Benye Weber will stay on to help provide some organizational continuity.

Haas said she is looking for ways to get the community involved. She's hoping to explore new ideas while still maintaining traditions of festivals past.

"For the 2012 festival, we're definitely going to keep the traditions of making bread to give as gifts to tribal visitors, and the community dinner to thank participants and volunteers," she said. "I'd also like to see if there's enough interest to have an opening parade, and have even more music, dancing and tribal art."

Tom Ellis said he'd like to see more opportunities for children to learn about Native traditions.

"We want to have some kids' activities tuned to the Native American culture," he said.

Another idea Haas wants to explore is resurrecting the Penn Cove boat tours narrated by Native storyteller Lou Labombard. Getting people out on the water so they have an even better view of the canoe races will add to the festival's learning opportunities, Haas said.

Waterman said the group is looking at holding a salmon feed, possibly at Coupeville Town Park. The group also would like to bring the focus of the event back downtown Coupeville, he said. With Native racers and their families gathered at the boat launch at Capt. Coupe Park and all the vendors and entertainment on Front Street, the festival is a bit disjointed.

"I really would like to see us look at how we can get people back out on the wharf," he said.

The first Coupeville Festival with Native American Canoe Races took place in 1930, organized by a local businessman to draw tourists. That first year, just three 11-man canoes took part in the races, but eventually as many as 22 tribes took part in an event that drew big crowds to the Coupeville waterfront. Local residents baked loaves of bread as gifts for the Indian families who camped nearby.

The event was called off during World War II, and Native canoe races were absent from Penn Cove until organizers started the new water festival in 1991.

The festival centers around the fast-paced canoe races starting at noon with songs, drums, and a blessing at the Captain Coupe Park boat launch on Ninth Street. Categories depend on the type of canoes, but typically include events for single male and female racers, 6-man and 11-man canoes and the junior "buckskin" races, said past president Susan Berta, who will continue to organize the canoe races in 2012.

"The Penn Cove Water Festival is so different from other celebrations," Berta said. "It's really a wonderful opportunity to learn about the Island's native history and culture. Native American culture has a lot of respect for our natural world and it does us all good to understand that."

Many locals echo Berta's sentiments, but practically speaking, it takes a lot of hard-working volunteers - and a lot of money - to stage the festival each year.

The group needs about $30,000 each year to stage the event. It typically receives some grant support from local tribes and Island County lodging tax revenues, but in 2010 the event struggled to bring in enough money to keep going. With the annual Tribal Canoe Journey ending at the Swinomish reservation near La Conner last year, local tribes had less money available. This year, the water festival is hoping to receive renewed tribal support, Haas said.

"We'll have to have some fundraisers, and we welcome community donations and new volunteers," said Haas.

Each year since 1993, Coupeville artist Roger Purdue has designed a logo based in the North Coast native art tradition of his Tsimshian heritage. His design is used on T-shirts, art prints and posters that are sold to raise money.

For information about the festival, to volunteer or to donate, visit the Penn Cove Water Festival page on Facebook or go to penncovewaterfestival.com.