Courtesy Debbie Preston, Nisqually tribe/NW Treaty Tribes/Facebook
The Three Sisters canoes of the Nooksack/Shxwhá:y tribes, built by Shxwhá:y Master Carver Neil Russell Sr., arrive at the Port of Olympia, landing site of this year’s Paddle to Nisqually.

After Disenrollment Conflict, Nooksack 306 Heal With Paddle to Nisqually

Frank Hopper

I was late arriving for the canoe landings. I got stuck in traffic twice driving from Seattle to the Port of Olympia near the mouth of the Nisqually River, the destination of this year’s multi-tribal canoe journey, the Paddle to Nisqually. Tribes from all over the Northwest had sent canoe families on journeys of many days, ultimately arriving at the land of the Nisqually.

I had to park a half-mile away and then got lost trying to find the landing. By the time I got there it was 2:30, an hour and a half after the landings began. I was sure I’d missed the good parts. Maybe I should just turn back around. But something kept telling me not to worry, that everything would be ok.

Then I heard... singing. Native singing. I merged with the crowd of onlookers gazing out onto Puget Sound, part of the Salish Sea, and saw beautiful hand-carved Native canoes stretching off for half a mile, like jet planes lining up to come in for a landing.

Pullers from the Puyallup Tribe head toward a landing during an annual canoe journey July 27 in Seattle. Dozens of tribal canoes were arriving at Alki Beach in Seattle as part of an annual celebration. Members of the Muckleshoot Tribe greeted the boats as part of the 2016 Paddle to Nisqually. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

The announcer, Nisqually Tribal Chairman Ferron McCloud, welcomed the canoes as they arrived. At first I didn’t listen. I was transfixed on the canoes and the singing. Then I heard, “...from the Nooksack tribe...” and looked up to see the Three Sisters.

Each of the Three Sisters is a canoe named after the daughters of Annie George, the Nooksack elder whose descendants are facing disenrollment because her name doesn’t appear on an old tribal census. Opponents of the disenrollment say this is just the technical reason. The true reason they say is political. Or even tyrannical, they say, as the current tribal chairman, Bob Kelly, tries to eliminate anyone in his tribe who opposes or disagrees with him.

“They’re basically running amok from the wishes of the people,” Nooksack elder George Adams told me in a later interview. “To me it’s not coherent. It’s dysfunctional.”

Whether disenrollment is justified or not, critics believe the tribal council has acted in an excessively harsh and ruthless way. Allegedly, scores of tribal employees were fired for supporting or being members of the descendants of Annie George, the Nooksack 306. In a public meeting last winter, as reported by ICTMN, Kelly had 66-year-old elder George Adams, the last fluent speaker of the Nooksack language and its dialects, escorted out of the building by tribal police. Adams’s alleged crime? Speaking at the meeting in their Native tongue after being ordered by Kelly to speak in English.

George Adams stands at the stern of one of the Three Sisters canoes while on this year’s Paddle to Nisqually tribal canoe journey. (Courtesy Deborah Alexander)

Additionally, the tribal council allegedly fired a judge who was about to rule against them, disbarred the attorney representing the 306, and by most accounts refused to hold new tribal elections until after the 306 are officially disenrolled.

RELATED: Disenrollment Kills Nooksack Language Revitalization Program

“These are desperate, despotic people trying to maintain their regime.” Adams alleges. “Suspending the election is smacking the will of the people in the face. This is not democracy. Even in our ancient world the people were able to select their leadership. It was done in the oral tradition.”

According to Nooksack constitution rules, four tribal council positions were up for reelection on March 19. The council didn’t want the 306 to vote against them, so they simply refused to hold new elections until the appeal filed by the 306 was settled and the disenrollment became final.

Pullers from the Puyallup Tribe head toward a landing during an annual canoe journey July 27 in Seattle. Dozens of tribal canoes were arriving at Alki Beach in Seattle as part of an annual celebration. Members of the Muckleshoot Tribe greeted the boats as part of the 2016 Paddle to Nisqually.  (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

This was just too much for Adams. As the tribe’s election superintendent, he invoked the right of General Council, an ancient tradition meaning the voice of the people. According to tradition, the tribe gives authority to its leaders, but in extreme cases of misuse this authority can be revoked by the tribe, which acts together as a single unit, the General Council.

On July 14 they held a General Council meeting and elected four interim council members. Now the majority of the council is against disenrollment, according to a recent ICTMN story.

The conflict isn’t over. Kelly says he doesn’t believe the election is valid and his supporters have begun circulating a petition to immediately disenroll the 306. But what’s even more important than the disenrollment issue is the tribe got its nech’o7móp back.

Nech’o7móp? (Like Ni-sho-mup, sorta...)

“Nech’o7móp means you can’t have any dissent on your canoe anywhere or it’s a dangerous situation, even in good times,” Adams explained. “Nech’o7móp means ‘one remaining.’ When we work together, we become one. There’s only one remaining. You can’t go on a canoe and act as eleven different pullers. You have to act as one puller, one with the canoe, otherwise things can go wrong.”

As I watched the Three Sisters canoes, I saw how the crew, the pullers, sliced their paddles into the water simultaneously, acting as one. They were all agreed on where they were going. They trusted their skipper. Their canoe flew.

The canoes are cheered and welcomed with raised hands as they complete this year’s 10-day, multi-tribal canoe journey, the Paddle to Nisqually, on July 30. (Courtesy Debbie Preston, Nisqually tribe/NW Treaty Tribes/Facebook)

Built all in the past year by Master Carver Neil Russell, the canoes represent the three daughters of Annie George, Elizabeth (Libby), Emma and Louisa. All of the Nooksack 306 can trace their ancestry back to one of these three grandmothers. The 306 literally rode this year’s healing tribal canoe journey held in the bosoms of their ancestors.

Participating in a tribal tradition such as a canoe journey is a form of prayer and prayer is a two-way communication. When we do these things, we feel our ancestors’ presence. We move and sing as they once did and they show us how pleased they are by blessing our minds with love and with a deeper understanding of the tribal values that allowed them to flourish for thousands of years.

You feel it, like a warm hug that calms your mind, clears your thinking, and shows you what’s right. It alleviates depression, replacing it with peaceful strength.

Laura Grizzlypaws does the grizzly bear dance on the last day of the Canoe Journey in Nisqually. (Courtesy Chris Stearns)

No tribal government owns this ability. It isn’t granted by a piece of paper or by an election or by the federal government. It comes from our family and from our heart that beats with that family.

Tribal politics can be complex. In all the conflict, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important. For George Adams it’s simple.

“Our message is ‘know who you are and know where you come from.’ There’s nothing political about that.”

I felt the warm hug of our ancestors rejoicing as I watched the canoe families arrive and request to land. The prayer of those pulling in the Three Sisters canoes was seemingly heard and answered for the Nooksack 306 this year. For although the future is uncertain, the bond they’ve formed with their ancestors through this ordeal is something that can never be taken away.

The Three Sisters canoes near the Lummi reservation, on the first leg of their journey to Nisqually waters in this year’s Paddle to Nisqually. (Courtesy Canda LaPage)

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