Tribal Families Enjoy Nature-filled Camp, Thanks to Fresh Air and Other Virus Precautions

By Lisa Pemberton, Puyallup Tribal News Editor

Like so many activities in 2020, the Puyallup Tribe’s Gathering of Native Americans (GONA) camp had a different look and feel, thanks to a variety of COVID-19 precautions.  

Happily, those changes brought unexpected blessings that made the event better than expected, said Cultural Director Connie McCloud.  

This was the first time parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles were invited to attend GONA, too. They played, created crafts and took in cultural lessons alongside Tribal youth.  

“This is the first time I got to do something with my family (since the pandemic began), and it was good,” said Chris Lovejoy, as he played bean bag toss games with his kids James, 5, and Kat, 7.  

GONA typically takes place during spring break at the Youth Center. Since the event was delayed until warmer weather arrived, organizers were able to hold it outside at the GREAT camp in Kapowsin.  

Surrounded by trees, a picturesque lake and other elements of nature, participants had an opportunity to hike on nearby trails, and rotate through different activity stations such as tie-dye shirt making, rock painting and cedar weaving throughout the day. They also drummed, sang songs and heard a variety of presenters.  

GONA is a national culturally relevant curriculum used to help communities heal from the lasting impacts of colonization. It promotes lessons about belonging, mastery, interdependence and generosity. It’s a prevention tool designed to help lower suicide rates and substance abuse in Tribal communities.  

The Puyallup Tribe has offered GONA camps since 1994, McCloud said. When the camp was originally canceled in the spring, the Culture Department sent families 12 weeks of packets from April through June with the GONA, Healing of the Canoe curriculum, the Canoe Journey Handbook, and activities that could be done at home. Activity backpacks also were given to families during a food distribution event in July.   

McCloud said they were thrilled when Tribal Council later funded an in-person gathering, as well. Several precautions were enacted to help protect campers and their families from COVID-19. Organizers limited the number of participants, required face masks at all times except lunch or snack time, encouraged social distancing between non-family members, and set up a checkpoint to take temperatures of everyone who came into the camp.  

The precautions were so well integrated into the experience, they became second nature. The fun began on Day One and continued through the end of camp.

On the final day of camp, participants were asked to share the “Belmont Process.” That’s where they answer: What did you see? What did you hear? How did it make you feel? Sharing those experiences is a GONA tradition, McCloud said.  

“I saw laughter and enjoyment,” said Adan Flores, 13, who attended the camp with his brother Santiago, 12. “I heard nature and families together.”  

“I’m happy to be here,” said Taylor Mitchell, 7, who attended with brother Taj, 4, and their mom Lucia Earl-Mitchell. “I love learning.”  

“This gave me a good opportunity to learn more skills to do more things and it made me feel really good,” said Andrew Asplund, 8, who attended with his Auntie Stacy Hailey.

Building on the day’s theme of Generosity, the Culture Department also held a traditional giveaway, wrapped families, presenters and other helpers with a blanket, and gave them a box with huckleberry jam, canned huckleberries, sage, tobacco ties and an abalone shell. The gifts were a way to honor everyone who participated, similar to the closing of a traditional potlatch ceremony.  

“This has been fun,” McCloud told the participants. “We’ve had a good time and learned a lot.”