To ‘leave this world a better place for our kids’: The enduring lessons of the Canoe Journey

LITTLE BOSTON — As Northwest Native canoes passed the spit across the bay from Point Julia on July 24, the setting seemed to fit the theme of the 2016 Canoe Journey/Paddle to Nisqually.
The theme of this year’s gathering of Northwest canoe cultures is teqwu?ma?, a word that is both the Nisqually name for Mount Rainier, where the Nisqually River originates, and a caution: “Don’t forget the water.”
The theme calls attention to the importance of being good caretakers of that which gives us life, and here the cleanup of Port Gamble Bay seemed to symbolize that. Pope Resources is spending an estimated $20 million to clean the spit and nearshore of the impacts of 142 years of lumber milling.
Port Gamble S’Klallam hosted 31 canoes and, according to coordinators, approximately 2,000 guests. Canoes would stay at Suquamish July 25-26, then continue on. The Nisqually Tribe hosts for a week beginning July 30.
Last year, canoes passed thousands of pilings and overwater structures, remnants of the old Pope & Talbot mill, on their way to Point Julia. A year later, all that is mostly gone; the state Ecology Department has called the creosote piling removal project the largest in the Puget Sound region.

The Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, too, removed a locally popular dock from its shores and has conducted its own bay cleanup programs.

And yet, despite the removal of wood waste and creosoted pilings, locals warn that the work to improve the marine environment is not over — not here, not in any of the territories of the Native and non-Native peoples represented in this Journey.

“We have to take these small local steps,” said Jeffrey Veregge, a noted graphic artist and former Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribal Council member. “If everybody does that on a global scale, we can do a lot more to conquer a lot more of these environmental problems and leave this world a better place for our kids … We’ve still got clean air and clean water, but how long will that last? Our oceans are getting warmer, it’s affecting the salmon runs.”

Port Gamble S’Klallam Chairman Jeromy Sullivan joined others on the beach, welcoming each canoe to Point Julia for an evening of dinner — salmon, venison stew and shellfish — and cultural sharing before continuing on to Suquamish the next day.
“Especially for our community right now, it’s a lot of healing — not just healing of the waters, but for our families,” Sullivan said of the Canoe Journey. “We’ve had some significant losses in our community. This is a real uplifting event that helps our families pull together and be together. That really is impactful on all of our families and helps.”

Regarding the health of Port Gamble Bay, Sullivan noted that a distinct species of herring spawns here, and that warmer waters have resulted in a loss of eelgrass which, in turn, has resulted in a decline in the herring population.

“What we’re doing here in our waters of Port Gamble — Nookayet — is amazing, and we want to do so much more,” he said. “Healing this part of Puget Sound is one small part, but it’s significant to us.”

Sullivan, the chairman, said he hopes to host a canoe landing “over there someday” — on the other side of the water, on the shores of the place his ancestors knew as Teekalet. “We understand that’s a long ways out, but that’s the end goal.”

Gina Beckwith, attorney for the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, said the Tribe established a green team this year to promote environment-friendly habits during the Canoe Journey’s visit. There were stations for compostable and recyclable materials. Rather than bottled water, volunteers handed out refillable water bottles and established bottle-refilling stations.

“People think that disposable water bottles, well, they’re recyclable, but they don’t remember that the harm comes from making them,” she said.

Greater public awareness

Those involved in the Canoe Journey say it is significant on several levels.

Noted S’Klallam carver Lloyd Fulton, 82, pulled in the 1989 Paddle to Seattle, an event created for the state’s centennial which gave birth to the annual Canoe Journey. Fulton noted that seven canoes participated in the event that year. Now, you can expect at least 100 canoes with indigenous participation from both U.S. coasts, Canada, Japan, Central and South America, and islands in the Pacific.

“It’s togetherness. It’s strength for [indigenous people],” Fulton said. “It’s coming together as one, learning how to work together … Once you do it, you’ll always want to do it. There’s no bad talk, no complaining. It’s all good — working together.”

Beckwith said the Canoe Journey helps build bridges of understanding. It’s open to the public and non-Native people are among the volunteers.

“We were just talking about when Squaxin hosted [in 2012], Gov. Christine Gregoire was there to welcome the canoes,” she said. “It’s a really good opportunity for the Tribe to have a good healthy relationship with our state counterpart. This contributes to the economy … This is great thing for everybody and brings a lot of people together.”

She added, “The Journey definitely helps educate people about us, that we exist and that we still practice our traditions.”
Sailors from Naval Base Kitsap helped carry canoes ashore during the landings at Point Julia and Suquamish. For many sailors, who hail from communities across the United States, it was their first introduction to Native culture.

“It’s just a great opportunity for us as the Navy to continue the community relations with the Tribes in this local area, and it’s awesome that we get the opportunity to help them continue their traditions,” Command Master Chief James Willis said. “It’s a great opportunity for us.”