'Continuing the journey'
I have concerning news,” an elder on the InterTribal Canoe Journey of Northwest tribes intoned into the microphone of a high school cafeteria on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
The cafeteria in Sequim, Wash., on July 26 was filled with 350 people, many of whom annually travel together on this canoe journey.
When I say canoe, think hand-carved from a cedar log, not store-bought.
Since 1989, when this journey began, tribes from as far north as the upper reaches of Canada’s Vancouver Island and as far south as the Columbia River on Washington’s southern border have met on the saltwater paths of their ancestors and traveled to a tribe that has agreed to host a weeklong potlatch at the journey’s end.
This year’s destination was the Muckleshoot Reservation, south of Seattle. We thought we’d all be there by week’s end.
I, a most decidedly urban Yakama with a great-grandma from one of these seafaring tribes, was on the journey by invitation. I was invited to tell a real story of canoe travel. But no one realized when I joined on July 25 what that story would be.
As the elder at the mic continued, a picture emerged of a capsized canoe and a man lost. The elder stepped back as if he were taking a breath. Instead, he took in the news. He repeated, “I have concerning news. Chief Jerry Jack …”
I don’t know the rest of his words because they were swallowed in an outpouring of grief like I have never witnessed before. Wailing echoed around the cafeteria’s cement walls. Others, myself included, sat dumbly, mouths open, gasping. Across the table from me, a woman said, “Just the other day, he asked the boys to sing at his wedding.”
Kelly John, an elder of the Kyuquot First Nation in British Columbia and a friend who called the chief his brother, walked up to the microphone. He asked a question for all of us who are in shock.
“What did you just say?”
The profound facts of the 68-year-old chief’s life – inherited his office at age 7, a potlatch leader, a participant in key lawsuits restoring First Nations rights – slid behind the immediacy of grief for a man many called friend.
There was also worry for others thrown from the canoe into water that was 53 degrees before the U.S. Coast Guard could rescue them. Three were treated for hypothermia. One young woman was also hit in the head by the Coast Guard’s rescue basket.
A young Chinook skipper who passed safely through those waters hours earlier told me, “We were confident out there, foolishly confident.”
Dinner ended, but few outside of parents with small children seemed ready to leave. Instead, we took up vigil – like the people on CNN after last year’s coal mining disaster, like people throughout the ages who have lost someone to the sea.
It was strangely coordinated, though completely unplanned. Most in the cafeteria had spent the day pulling against zero tides, punishing winds and rip-roaring currents. We were all running on fumes.
Still, slowly, the leaders from many tribes and various religious traditions stood up, offered prayers and sang. We could tell they were ad-libbing, but they were streaming from another time, and it was pure poetry.
“I have lost two people on that water, that water you were on today,” Elaine Grinnell, an elder of the Jamestown S’Klallam, said. “We are calling on the ancestors. Listen. Take good food and make yourself strong again. Take prayer and make yourself strong.”
In that altered time while the chief was journeying, traditional Indian Shaker and evangelical Christian prayed side by side. We were strangely separated from the common sniping about beliefs in Indian communities and the religious war that’s dominating the news. No one objected to anyone else’s faith – not even the fireman who told us that the chief wasn’t wearing a life jacket.
If he had been, this would be a different story, he said.
The young men who were to sing at the chief’s wedding the next weekend sang at his wake in strong, rich voices. Keeping time with a rattle, they sang. Even when the younger brother collapsed into his mother’s arms, his sobs carried the melody.
“We get a little sense of what it was like in the old time,” a man said.
Yet it wasn’t that time when we had the comparative luxury of reading the ocean’s mood, and putting off journeys for weeks at a time if weather conditions were poor. Now, for most, the journey must fit snuggly inside a two-week vacation. The result is a race, which elders that night said we can’t keep up.
In the morning people naturally gathered at the Makah Canoe Society camp because it was a Makah tribe’s canoe, loaned to a skipper not affiliated with the society, that capsized. Still, the elders of the society took responsibility and began the best crisis counseling I’ve ever witnessed.
In the middle of it, they set out chairs for a young man who was in the capsized canoe and his family. They dusted them with eagle down and sang.
“I tried to hold him up, but I wasn’t strong enough,” he cried. An older Makah man answered him. “I wasn’t there to hold him up. I was miles away. All I could do was cry.”
But I have gotten ahead of myself, because I want to remember one more thing about that night.
Around midnight the chief’s family arrived at the cafeteria. They stood together, four or five of them before the 100 stragglers still keeping vigil.
Speaking in a soft voice, Colleen Pendleton, the chief’s daughter, told the canoe families to continue on their journey. She asked the pullers to wear cedar on their arm, and from somewhere people have acquired sheets of cedar that they ripped and wove into armbands.
Then she said the most startling thing, the thing most out of step with America’s litigious culture and with tribal politics’ finger-pointing – and yet it was the thing that actually allowed the journey to continue.
Don’t feel any guilt, she said. It wasn’t your fault. Nobody is to blame.
The next day the chief’s family walked out their forgiveness, welcoming anyone who wanted to go to a beach near where the chief died, and ceremonially washed the canoe so that it could continue its journey, too.
<i>Kara Briggs, Yakama, is senior fellow of the American Indian Policy and Media Initiative at Buffalo State College. She lives in Portland, Ore., and is a former president of the Native American Journalists Association. She writes her Healthwise column bimonthly. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.