A Quileute Nation canoe arrives at Swinomish, during an earlier Canoe Journey. Swinomish is hosting the Canoe Journey this year, July 25-31.

The Journey to Swinomish

Richard Walker
6/19/11

Canoe skippers gathered at Samish Indian Nation’s Fidalgo Bay Resort to confirm routes and arrival dates for the 2011 Canoe Journey.

The ensuing conversation, involving 80 Northwest Coast leaders and canoe skippers, was a reminder of what the journey has become: a cultural renaissance with economic, environmental, political and social implications.

Aurelia Washington, coordinator of this year’s Journey to Swinomish, is the granddaughter of the late Chester Cayou, a long-time Swinomish senator who used the Journey to teach young people about the importance of “loving, caring and sharing with one another.” Those words were adopted as the motto of this year’s journey.

Washington said her grandfather, who was born in 1922 and grew up in the San Juan Islands (an archipelago in the pacific northwest, lying between the coast of Washington state and Vancouver Island, British Columbia), told her about traveling by canoe with his parents and grandparents to visit relatives.

“I realized after my first canoe journey experience just how spiritual it is,” she said. “We have to give our children another path to go on, we need to bring our languages back. The Spirit has said, ‘Here’s your chance.’ ”

The Canoe Journey started in 1989 to revive a traditional form of travel on the ancestral highways of the coastal Pacific Northwest. Every year, more than 100 indigenous canoes travel from their territories to a host nation, with stops at indigenous territories along the way, for celebration and cultural sharing.

In this year’s Journey, the first canoes get underway in early July and will meet at the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, near La Conner, Wash., July 25-31.

The journey involves cultural, environmental, economic and political aspects:

Cultural influence: Indigenous languages are spoken on the journey, particularly at the canoe landings when skippers ask hosts for permission for pullers to come ashore, and at evening ceremonies when dances and songs are shared.

Pulling long distance in a canoe requires emotional, physical and spiritual fitness; pledges to be alcohol-free, drug-free and, in many cases, smoke-free, are required. That’s had a tremendous impact on younger pullers. This year, teens from the Lummi CEDAR Project (Community Health Elders & Education Drug-Free Alcohol-Free Respect) and the B.R.I.D.G.E. program (Building Respectful Interactions to Develop Goals for American Indian Elders and Youth) will pull in the Journey. CEDAR provides young people with leadership opportunities and ways to get involved in their community. B.R.I.D.G.E. encourages and initiates cultural exchange between American Indian/Alaska Native elders and youth to share beliefs, customs, language and traditions.

Josephine Finkbonner, Swinomish, said she has always talked to her children about the importance of being alcohol- and drug-free. She said the Canoe Journey has reinforced the message that “We don’t need to have drugs and alcohol in our lives.”

Ancestral songs often return out on the water. This past January 29 at Samish Indian Nation’s Fidalgo Bay Resort, Samish opened the Canoe Journey skippers meeting with a song that came to Rosie Cayou’s son during the 2002 Journey. The song, called “Samish Anthem,” was also shared when Samish opened its art gallery in downtown Anacortes in December 2009.

“This song was delivered during a Canoe Journey. It was delivered to my son to bring home,” Cayou explained. “Although he has two homes, Swinomish and Samish, he got a message from the ancestors to bring the song home to Samish. He received this message in Quinault during the 2002 Canoe Journey.”

The art of canoe carving has received a new breath of life; the Journey features beautiful cedar canoes carved by a new generation of Native carvers. In 2002, six young Suquamish carvers completed a 37-foot cedar canoe as part of the three-month Full Circle Canoe Carving project. The project was done in conjunction with the Squamish First Nation in North Vancouver, British Columbia  under the guidance of Ray Natrell, a master carver. And in 2009, Cowlitz master carter Robert Harju carved a canoe which was dedicated to the memory of the late John Barnett, a long-time Cowlitz chairman. That canoe is on display; a fiberglass version is being used on the Canoe Journey.

Environmental influence: The Canoe Journey is proving to be an effective tool for measuring the health of the Salish Sea, an expansive inland sea stretching from the Strait of Georgia to the north to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound to the south.

Since 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey has equipped five canoes with probes that collect data about pH levels, salinity, temperature, turbidity and dissolved oxygen in the water. The data is being used to track the health of this inland sea – and hopefully identify pollution sources.

By the end of the 2008 Canoe Journey, the probes had recorded 43,000 measurements from 607 miles of ancestral waters, collected at 10-second intervals. The data was processed and mapped, and researchers looked for patterns and trends in sea conditions.

“We hope we can use these findings to help guide how to fix the waters here,” USGS research geologist Eric Grossman said at the time.

Among the findings:

71-degree surface water temperatures at Hood Canal, in the heavily developed lower Puget Sound. Warmer temperatures are not uncommon where circulation is low and during hot summer weather. But these warmer water temperatures were recorded “at 8:30 a.m. after several days of gloomy cool weather,” the report stated. “Temperatures likely get significantly higher and affect plant and animal growth, restricting salmon distribution and aiding algal blooms.”

Reduced dissolved oxygen at March’s Point in Fidalgo Bay, home of two oil refineries. “Shoreline structures can alter water quality,” the report states. “Dissolved oxygen levels within the jetties and their impact to organisms throughout Fidalgo Bay remain uncertain.” Samish and Swinomish limit their harvest of shellfish from the bay because of pollution.

Low dissolved oxygen off Victoria, British Columbia, where waters are generally thought to be well-mixed by tidal flows. The lower oxygen levels are “likely related to urban runoff,” the report states. Victoria releases untreated wastewater into the sea.

Lower dissolved oxygen east of Saanich Peninsula, where “mixing is greater than within Saanich Inlet.” Lower oxygen levels “may be related to impaired water offshore of Victoria.”

Coast Salish leaders hope continued data collection will them help identify signs of climate change, impacts from development, and changes in the levels and types of nutrients and pollutants washing into the sea. That information could help them solve such mysteries as the loss of eelgrass, which provides habitat for fish on which salmon prey. Some scientists, like those at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, believe pollution could be a reason for the decline in the local endangered orca population.

Grossman and Coast Salish leaders want to collect data year-round by attaching probes to fishing vessels and placing data-collection buoys at three to five sites.

Economic influence: The Canoe Journey brings thousands of visitors to host nations, impacting local economies and giving host nations an opportunity to show some economic muscle. Hosting is preceded by new construction to accommodate visitors.

During last year’s journey to the Makah Nation, Jamestown S’Klallam dedicated and blessed its new 23,000-square-foot health clinic. It also hosted a salmon dinner, storytelling, carving demonstrations, and tours of its carving shed where poles for S’Klallam-owned buildings and 7 Cedars Casino are carved. Lower Elwha Klallam, the next stop on the Journey, dedicated and blessed its new Elwha Klallam Heritage Center, in the heart of Port Angeles.

Swinomish is developing a landing site and 22-acre campground along Swinomish Channel; the welcome area will feature a pavilion with shelters resembling traditional cedar hats. Other amenities at Swinomish include the Northern Lights Casino, an RV park overlooking Swinomish Channel, a community center, and beaches on the channel and on Similk Bay.

Political influence: The Canoe Journey has built bridges between cultures. A committee of Native and non-Native people formed to help raise money for the Lummi Nation’s Canoe Journey hosting in 2007. Lummi’s hosting included its largest public potlatch in 70 years.

This year, residents of Lummi Island want to help host canoes visiting Lummi Nation en route to Swinomish. Lummi Island, which is part of the Lummi Nation’s historical territory but is not part of the reservation, is connected to the mainland by ferry service. But the Lummi Nation owns the ferry landing, and relations have been strained by negotiations over renewal of the ferry landing lease.

Residents of the Whidbey Island town of Coupeville, historically Skagit territory where treaty signers S’kwai-kwi and Sneatlum had longhouses, will host canoes on their way to Swinomish.

The participation of indigenous peoples from around the world has grown each year as well. Among the participants in the 2010 Journey: Ainu, Greenlanders, Hawai’ians, Maori, Tlingit and Yup’ik.

The Canoe Journey has been a catalyst for relationship-building outside the event. Pullers from Grand Ronde and Suquamish participated in the Maori Waitangi Waka Pageant 2011, Feb. 3-4 in Wellington, New Zealand.  And at the Jan. 29 skippers meeting, former Swinomish senator Ray Williams told of a trade system that is developing among Pacific Rim indigenous peoples from Australia, Canada, Cook Island, Ecuador, Hawai’i, Maori, Melanesia, Mexico and Russia, and other countries.

Despite the growth in its sphere of influence, the Canoe Journey remains focused on one thing: Keeping the culture alive.

Raymond Patrick Hillaire, Lummi, told of the healing that comes from the “never-ending flow of love” at each stop of the journey. He told of the losses that the ancestors suffered – children lost to diseases, religious practices banned, villages destroyed. And yet, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren live, the languages are spoken, the songs are sung, and the culture survives.

“The ancestors are thankful for their children who are here today,” he said. “We start getting our strength back when we visit our friends and relatives, when we visit our territories. That hug, that acknowledgment that ‘I see you and I love you,’ is healing.”

To follow this year’s Canoe Journey — called the Paddle to Swinomish — visit www.paddletoswinomish.com.

Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from Kitsap County, Wash. Contact him at rmwalker@centurylink.net.

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