POULSBO – The grandparents knew a different time than this.
The grandparents remember the boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking their language. They remember when it was illegal to potlatch – that great system of wealth redistribution – or practice their religion. They remember when they or others were jailed for exercising their treaty right to fish in their usual and accustomed territories.
But they held on, safeguarding the lifeways that sustained the generations, keeping alive the teachings passed down to them by their own grandparents. And many of them lived to hear their children’s children speak the language, dance the dances and sing the songs in the longhouse. They lived to see them traveling in great canoes on the marine highways the ancestors traveled.
“The longhouse ways have always been a part of who we are, but because of the Religious Freedom Act we don’t have to hide it anymore,” said Eric Day, a Swinomish canoe skipper who has ties to Port Gamble S’Klallam. “It’s because of the sacrifices our elders made. We have to remember that.”
The Canoe Journey, the annual gathering of Northwest Native canoe cultures, began in 1989 with the Paddle to Seattle and was part of a wave of social and political changes in the 1970s and 1980s that spawned an indigenous revival. Changes during that period included the 1974 Boldt Decision, which upheld Indian treaty fishing rights; and the Religious Freedom Act of 1978, which protects for Native Americans “their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions … and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.” And then, the Paddle to Seattle, conducted as part of the state’s centennial celebration, in 1989; and the first of the annual Canoe Journeys in 1991.
The big takeaway from the Canoe Journey for the observer: “We’re still here,” Day said. “We’re a strong people. After all that our people have been through, we’re still holding on to who we are.”
An estimated 100 canoes are expected to arrive Aug. 5 on Campbell River Spit, in the territory of the We Wai Kai First Nation and Wei Wai Kum First Nation on Vancouver Island, according to Jodi Simkin, executive director of Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre in Cape Mudge. The landing will be the beginning of a weeklong celebration, with dinners of traditional foods, and songs, dances and gifting in the Big House – the common coastal First Nations term for longhouse.
For Suquamish, a 200-mile journey
Being in the canoe requires mental, physical and spiritual discipline. Pullers pull for great distances and must be supportive of each other (“The weary paddler resting is still ballast,” according to a Quileute canoe family’s “Ten Rules of the Canoe”).
At each stop up to and including the final destination, canoe skippers ask – often in their Tribal Nation’s language — for permission to come ashore. Guests enjoy hosted dinners of traditional foods, and the evenings are filled with the sharing of traditional songs, dances and gifting.
Port Gamble S’Klallam and Suquamish will be stops on the Journey for down-sound canoes traveling north to Campbell River. Canoes will land at Suquamish on July 20 and at Point Julia on July 21; the landings and festivities are open to the public.
Port Gamble S’Klallam will not put canoes on the water out of respect for loved ones who recently passed away. Suquamish canoes will depart on July 21, making stops at Tulalip, Swinomish, Samish, Lopez Island, San Juan Island, Tsawout, Tsartlip, Cowichan, Chemainus, Nanaimo, Qualicum, Comox, Quadra Island, and Campbell River – a distance of roughly 200 nautical miles.
On this leg of the journey, the ongoing indigenous revival will be in full view.
The Suquamish Tribe and Tulalip Tribes are economic powerhouses and among the largest sources of jobs in their regions.
In the San Juan Islands, most Coast Salish ancestors were nudged or forced off the islands by the treaty, relocation to reservations, and the homestead era. Ah, how times have changed. Pullers will pass Shaw Island’s Reef Net Bay, which was formerly called Squaw Bay but was changed this year to honor the Coast Salish reef-net fishing history there. They might pass Friday Harbor, where Musqueam artist Susan Point’s Coast Salish house posts overlook the harbor and tell of the relationship between the First People and the environment that sustains them. They will pass Stuart Island, where Rick Guard, a member of the Mitchell Bay Band of Indians who also has Swinomish ancestry, fishes his family’s ancestral reef-net site.
They will visit Pe’pi’ow’elh, a village site on San Juan Island’s Garrison Bay where the grandparents’ grandparents lived until British Royal Marines destroyed a 600- to 800-foot longhouse there and established their encampment during the U.S.-British military occupation of the island from 1859-1872. In summer 2016, the language and the songs returned to this place when a Reef Net Captain Story Pole was erected and dedicated here by the Lummi and Saanich nations.
Pullers will pass Henry Island, the home of sweh-tuhn, the First Man and a common ancestor to many Coast Salish people.
And then they will continue on the ancestral marine highways, ultimately reaching the final destination at Campbell River for a week of celebration and — in the words of one late culture bearer – “loving, caring and sharing.”
‘Reconnection to inherent rights’
Nizhoni Price, Port Gamble S’Klallam, personifies all that the grandparents’ grandparents held on for. Like many of her peers, she has known nothing but the Canoe Journey every summer. She has been present or participated in 12 Canoe Journeys. Nizhoni is 12 years old.
She said the Canoe Journey is a place for her Tribe to represent itself to other Tribes and First Nations, to share its culture. She shared some of the things she’s learned on the Journey.
“The Canoe Journey taught me how to socialize with others, and I’ve met good role models,” she said. “It gives me a chance to listen and learn other Tribes’ songs and to learn from other Tribes’ ways.”
Nizhoni’s parents, Joseph and Laura Price, work in youth services for the Tribe, and Laura is also a canoe skipper. Nizhoni said her favorite Canoe Journey memory is “paddling with my mom in the canoe.”
Nizhoni, a traditional dancer who is learning her language, said she hopes people who visit Point Julia during the Journey come away with an understanding of “our way of life, our traditional ways, and our songs and dances.”
Shirley Williams, a cultural educator from the Lummi Nation, said this is what the Canoe Journey is all about: “Helping our people reconnect to their inherent birth rights and heal.”
“I hope the youth remember they are the keepers of the tradition and protectors of the circle of life and always honor our Chi’lange’lth (inherent birth rights),” she said. “The Creator gave us the sacred responsibility to the land, water, reef-net, salmon, animals and language. If it is not supported, it is cultural [and] spiritual genocide.”