It’s the third-to-last day of protocol, and Tribal Journeys is coming to a close. Kopa Tillikum, an independent news team from Shoalwater Bay consisting of Keven Shipman, Misty Ellingburg, and Brandt Ellingburg, are assisting in media for the Quinault nation, which largely consists of drinking lots of coffee, partaking of free meals, and keeping their cameras on and their eyes open.
So, it is fortunate, indeed, when skipper Tony Johnson points out Cliff Corwin, a feisty ninety-six year-old Chinook Elder and Quinault tribal member, and recommends Kopa Tilikum interview him. After all, Cliff went to school with Shoalwater tribal patriarch John Doe, aka Vernon Shipman; he knew Chief George Allen Charley personally, Keven and Misty hurry to make Cliff’s acquaintance, and find him charming and electric with positive energy and good memories.
To Cliff, who is sharp as a tack and filled with a goldmine of stories about the old days, age is just a number. Born in 1917, in Bay Center, Washington, Cliff spent his early years fishing, clam-schooning, oyster-digging, crab-fishing and animal trapping, at one with nature and living off the lam. In his spare time, he attended school, forgoing formal education in the third grade to pursue a professional career in fishing. On the weekends or days off, he and his cousins rode skiffs from Bay Center to Shoalwater Bay on account of the beautiful Indian ladies across the water.
"Wasn’t too many houses in those days," Cliff recalls, "We stayed in a longhouse with a fire in the middle of the floor, and a hole through the ceiling to let the smoke out. And we used to drink - I think they called it ‘moonshine,’ back then."
Cliff laughs, and Keven and Misty have to join him.
"We still call it moonshine," Misty tells him, which Cliff takes as good news.
Back in Bay Center, Cliff and the other Native Americans banded together on a baseball team. Like many other First Nations people of their time, they were persecuted for their ethnic background, but sports were a positive outlet for them, and the Charley’s were born athletes.
When asked what he remembers of Chief Charley, Cliff replies softly that he “liked to turn a tale, and everyone liked to hear him talk. I remember this one story he was always telling. It was when this white man was out in the water, hollering for help because he was drowning. And Chief Charley had on a skin coat and an eighty-five dollar watch in his pocket and he dove into the ocean and fished the man out. Two years later, he passed the man in the street, and he didn’t even get so much as a, ‘Hello, George.’ He called that, ‘the gratitude of the white man,’” Cliff makes an amusing face, as if to imply that such gratitude was a dubious thing indeed.
When Cliff was twenty, he married an eighteen-year-old Quinault beauty named Ethel, and at the age of twenty-five, they had a son, Cliff Junior. Though Cliff Sr. was drafted for World War II, as a commercial fisherman he didn’t have to go to war, a fact for which he was grateful. When he was forty-five, the trade in Bay Center had died down, so the Corwin’s moved to Quinault, where Cliff and his family now live.
Cliff says he likes Canoe Journey because it brings together all kinds of people. He’s able to make new friends - like today - and has also met up with old chums he hasn’t seen in years. Canoe Journey is, “a good thing, an exciting time,” Cliff says.
To the kids of the Tribe, Cliff’s lasting advice is, “Just do good.”
Meeting Cliff Corwin was an honor and a privilege for the Kopa Tilikum team, the highlight of this reporter’s Canoe Journey. We are thankful and excited that Cliff was willing to share his stories of the past with us; we regard each one as a gold nugget of wisdom for anyone willing to go treasure-hunting.
by Misty Ellingburg