A Modern Canoe Journey Invoking Ancient Principles

A Modern Canoe Journey Invoking Ancient Principles

Richard Walker

The modern Canoe Journey was started to revive the culture.

For months, the Canoe Journey is a cultural immersion experience, with children participating in canoe practices, dance practices, language classes, gift creation and regalia making.

Its success was apparent July 31, as 80 Swinomish children – their faces filled with unabated joy – rushed to the floor to dance as the football field-size protocol tent erupted in drumming and song.

“I love the Canoe Journey because it gives our people an opportunity to be proud of who we are,” said Aurelia Washington, coordinator of the 2011 Paddle to Swinomish.

The moment – indeed, the entire Canoe Journey – was also symbolic of the ancestors’ determination to keep cultures and traditions alive for the generations to come.

“There was a time when the government tried to take this away from us,” Tulalip’s Ray Fryberg said. “The government thought this was all bad, but it was spiritual to us. It’s spiritual because we put our prayers into it.”

As Tulalip children and toddlers dressed in cedar headbands and decorated shawls danced confidently with adults on the protocol floor, Fryberg said, “This younger generation is going to carry it on. We’re caring and sharing with one another.  Our culture is thriving. Our culture is still strong.”

The audience erupted in agreement with loud shouts and the beating of drums.

Some children have known nothing in their lives but the Canoe Journey, which was started in 1989 by Emmett Oliver, noted Quinault educator, as part of Washington state’s centennial. Those children’s grandparents and great-grandparents had lived through cultural oppression – events of communal and familial importance, such as potlatching and spirit dancing, were illegal in Canada and the U.S. until the mid-20th century. And now, the children danced and sang with their parents and grandparents on protocol floors along the journey route.

“I never thought I’d live to see so many people come together in celebration,” said Mary Helen Cagey, 93, of Lummi.

The 2011 Canoe Journey was hosted by the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, July 25-31. Canoes from the northernmost First Nations began the Journey almost a month earlier, making visits to other First Nations along the way. All told, canoes from some 60 First Nations participated; one special visitor was Governor Chris Gregoire, who pulled a short distance in the Swinomish canoe, Salmon Dancer.

Washington said Swinomish prepared for the Journey for almost two years. A waterfront park was developed with three large pavilions shaped like cedar hats. Al Charles, Lower Elwha Klallam, carved the red and black salmon panels on the posts of the pavilions. The pavilions are arguably the largest Northwest Coast Native public art in the region and are visited by an estimated 1 million people annually.

The pavilions feature interpretive panels about the Canoe Journey, the Great Flood, and the village of Txiwuc that was at the landing site. A native-plant garden and interpretive panels about traditional lifeways line a walkway to the pavilions.

Swinomish developed forested camping sites and trails for the Journey. A new Chevron gas station and mini-mart – an unrelated but timely project – was also finished in time for the inpouring of visitors.

For months, the community worked on regalia for the children, girls’ red dresses and boys’ vests fringed with small wooden paddles that clicked when they danced; and on gifts for the potlatch, historically a means of redistributing wealth. Swinomish distributed blankets, books, canned salmon, cedar baskets and hats, and commemorative CDs, posters, scarves and throws.

In addition, for a week Swinomish hosted its guests – estimated at 15,000 -- to traditional dinners of salmon, clam chowder, crab, and elk stew.

The hosting and sharing was in keeping with the teachings of lifeways that sustained the People for millennia and were passed from generation to generation.

“Over the last seven days, we’ve witnessed loving, caring and sharing,” Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby said. “These are not our teachings, but our elders’ teachings.”

Loving, caring and sharing – the theme of this year’s Journey to honor the teachings of Washington’s grandfather, the late Swinomish leader Chester Cayou – were demonstrated in many ways.

A Quileute chief and his wife who had recently lost a loved one were wrapped in a blanket “to dry their tears from the loss, to show love and respect and uphold our chief.” Elders and veterans were also honored with blankets during the week.

Cladoosby said the blankets contained “all the love and the good feelings of this place. That’s what it’s all about – loving, caring, sharing and pulling together.”

He added, “We are one family. When you feel the need to warm up, or you feel sad, wrap up in that blanket and remember the Journey and feel the love.”

When word came that a veteran had passed, protocol was interrupted and everyone stood for a moment of silence. A shawl was placed on the protocol floor. One by one people came down to place a total of $854.48 on it as a love offering for the veteran’s family.

Participants in the Canoe Journey say the event is a lot like life. You travel together, and sometimes you have to pick others up when their bodies are weary or their spirits need lifting. You have to take care of yourself so you can do your part and help others when needed.

George Adams, Nooksack, said his young pullers learn teachings that translate to good ways of living every day: When someone needs help carrying their canoe to the shore or the water, you help them. You help the elders. You leave your camp cleaner than when you got there.

And, of course, they learn about love.

“I thought the theme, ‘Loving, Caring and Sharing’ was so beautiful when I saw it,” said Debbie Saluskin of the Sacred Water Canoe Family. “If we all love each other, if we all care for each other, if we all share with each other, then our children should never want or need.”

The 2012 Canoe Journey will be hosted by Squaxin Island.

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