Molly Neely-Walker
Kaiden Finkbonner, 12, stands in a Lummi Nation youth canoe and asks for permission for his canoe family to come ashore at Samish, August 1. Kaiden said he has learned courage and perseverance as a puller in the Canoe Journey.

Canoe Journey 2015: Passing the Torch to a New Generation

Richard Walker

The annual Canoe Journey is always about the young people, about passing on the teachings and the culture, but this year it was even more so.

In this year’s journey, younger people were given more responsibility in the canoe and in the longhouse. Teen skippers who had stepped forward to be trained guided their crews from home to final destination, and sometimes in waters that turned rough. At landings, young ones stood in canoes and, often in languages their great-grandparents were forbidden to speak, asked representatives of host nations for permission to come ashore. Young ones on the beach reciprocated and welcomed them ashore to visit, to share traditional foods and dances and songs. At Muckleshoot, the final destination of the 2015 Canoe Journey, the young ones had their own time on the protocol floor.

While these young ones were born long after the first modern Canoe Journey in 1989, they indicated that they intend to be the ones who carry it on.

To Katelynn Pratt, who, as Miss Chief Seattle Days, is a youth representative of the Suquamish Tribe, the Canoe Journey is a metaphor for life. In the canoe, “You forget about your worries. You work on getting to that next place … [You learn] that there’s always something better, that when you get into a rough place, you can get through it.” What has she learned about herself? “I’ve learned I’m strong,” she said.

Katelynn, by the way, is 14.

Asiah Gonzalez, 17, Swinomish, pulled in the Canoe Journey and then helped set up for Swinomish Days, a three-day celebration on the Swinomish reservation, and danced for three days in the powwow. At the conclusion of Swinomish Days, she was crowned Miss Swinomish.

Like Pratt and others, Gonzalez said the Canoe Journey has taught her a lot about how to live in a good way. “A lot of my teachings come from the canoe,” Gonzalez said. “What’s helped me most being out on the water is patience. It’s true what they say: good things come to those who wait; not everything is going to be given to you. [As in life], the water can be calm one minute and turn on you the next. You just have to be prepared. You don’t know what’s coming your way – just be prepared.”

Those words, the self-confidence and youthful involvement, are golden to adults who remember the discrimination of the past and the assimilation goals of the boarding school and termination and relocation eras. “After my experiences of that discrimination — the tribe not having any programs or any help back in the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s, even into the ’60s — when I see all this today, it just makes me feel real good that our young people have the opportunity to do these things,” said Ed Carriere, a Suquamish culture-bearer now in his 80s.

“They can to go to any school they want to. Their lives will be enriched, where my life was a struggle. It makes me feel real good to see all this today.”

It’s been 26 years since the first modern Canoe Journey — the Paddle to Seattle — took place, sparking a cultural renaissance: the revival of canoe travel upon ancestral waters, the restoration of languages and songs and teachings, the bolstering of indigenous pride, the message to the world that indigenous nations of the Pacific Northwest are alive and thriving.

The annual gathering is rich in meaning and cultural significance. Canoe pullers travel great distances as their ancestors did, so participating in the journey requires physical and spiritual discipline. At each stop, canoe families follow certain protocols — they ask for permission to come ashore, often in their ancestral languages, and at night in longhouses there is gifting, honoring and sharing of traditional songs and dances. Meals, including evening dinners of traditional foods, are provided by the host nations.

The Paddle to Seattle in 1989 was organized by educator Emmett Oliver, Quinault, as part of the State of Washington’s centennial celebration. Since then, the journey has grown to include more than 100 canoes and the participation of people from other indigenous canoe cultures, including Ainu, Alaska Natives, Greenlandic Inuit, Maori, Native Hawaiians, and indigenous Peoples from Brazil and Mexico.

After a mammoth Canoe Journey at Quinault in 2013 and the long-distance journey north to Heiltsuk First Nation territory in Bella Bella, British Columbia in 2014, this year’s journey was one of four smaller journeys that took place in the Northwest. Others were hosted by the Ahousaht First Nation, Semiahmoo First Nation, and Sliammon First Nation.

The journey that concluded at Muckleshoot began July 30 at Birch Bay, followed on July 31 at Lummi Nation, August 1 at Samish Nation, August 2 at Swinomish, August 3 at Tulalip, August 4 at Suquamish, and August 5-9 at Muckleshoot.

The 2016 Canoe Journey will be hosted by the Nisqually Tribe.

Changing of the guard

At Port Gamble S’Klallam, the transfer of leadership from one generation to the next was clearly underway. Laura Price, a longtime canoe skipper, said this Canoe Journey held special significance to her because it marked the first time her husband’s young cousin, Adam Charles, would skipper the 11-man canoe.

Adam is 15.

On the beach before the canoe got underway the morning of August 4, Price talked about the responsibility that comes with leading a team of canoe pullers.

“When you enter the canoe, you enter it like you’re entering a church,” Price said. “We respect it. We don’t cuss, we don’t think bad thoughts. I discourage bad jokes even, because it’s like entering something that is very spiritual.

“To be a leader and a skipper, it’s a tough job, because you have to humbly look after everybody and try to share those teachings with others. Not everybody’s going to agree with them, but you have to do your best to make those teachings live in the canoe, because you’re protecting the canoe, which protects the people. You’re responsible for the protection of every person in this canoe. It’s a huge responsibility.”

The route from Point Julia, on the Port Gamble S’Klallam reservation, to Suquamish is rich in cultural significance. Adam and his crew departed Point Julia, home of an ancestral village and site of a commissioned totem pole that Adam is carving with his cousin, Jimmy Price. They passed the former mill town of Port Gamble, which their ancestors knew as Teekalet. They rounded Twin Spits, followed the north shores of the Kitsap Peninsula, and stopped at Point No Point, which the ancestors knew as Hahdskus, and where the leaders in the grandparents’ grandparents’ generation signed the Treaty of Point No Point, making land available to the United States for non-Native settlement. Then they set off for Suquamish, where many of them have relatives.

At Suquamish, Adam said of his first pull as skipper: “It’s a lot of tough work, but we got through it, even though we hit a lot of rough patches out there. I just did what I learned from my training, that if it gets rough, I’ve got to keep going.”

As his ancestors did in keeping the culture alive, in fighting for and preserving their rights—a mantle is being placed on the shoulders of Adam Charles’ generation.

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