By Tom Rohrer
Imagine the pride and connection to culture for the hundreds participating in Paddle to Squaxin 2012, this year’s tribal canoe journey.
On Sunday, July 29, the paddlers and canoes, which range in size from 17 to 36 feet, will arrive adjacent to the Swantown boat launch in Olympia, which will serve as the final landing spot of the 2012 Canoe Journey.
The tribal journey event was initiated in 1993, and each year a different Northwest tribe or Canadian First Peoples act as host for this event. 2012 is the year the Squaxin people welcome the canoes.
The theme for this year’s journey is “Teaching of Our Ancestors.” Between 10,000-15,000 are expected to witness the landing ceremony, which will be followed by Potlatch Protocol Celebration on the Squaxin Island Reservation at Kamilche.
Representatives from Puget Sound and Washington tribes will be landing their canoes on Sunday, other tribal people from Alaska, Hawaii, New York, Brazil and New Zealand will be joining in the event.
Bridget Ray, the long range planner for the event and the green team planner for the Squaxin Island Tribe, says the event provides a bridge between separated generations of the Native American culture in the Puget Sound.
“There has been a generation of separation of culture,” Ray said. “Kids in the past couldn’t legally talk the language, dance the dances or practice the practices. So there was a huge disconnect. It’s taken a couple of generations to establish the traditions, songs, and culture. It happens in chunks, when people learn to weave, sing or dance. What the canoe journey does is bring all those things. It’s a recovery of culture.”
“On the (Squaxin Island Reservation), the event is hosted right in the middle of everything,” Ray said. “There is a terrific sense of pride in the community already, but a lot of people don’t know what to expect. Already, we are seeing changes, and people within the community coming together.”
Ray estimates that the journey will feature over 120 canoes, each representing a family, coupled with traditions, stories and cultural practices.
“I would expect around 130 canoes,” Ray noted. “Each canoe has its own name for one family in some tribes. Each cedar tree used to create the canoe has its own history. The canoe carries the culture of that group.”
A physically, mentally and emotionally draining event, the canoe journey requires participants to dig deep for strength and endurance, not always an easy task on the sometimes rough waters of the Puget Sound. Saaduups Peele, of Seattle who will be undertaking his second journey representing the Haida Tribe of Alaska, has seen how demanding the event can be.
“It’s really a tough journey, and the challenges are very hard,” Peele said. “When you get to the shore, you have to be able to stand up for protocol, and every single tribe that comes has their say until the ceremony is done. It’s very challenging physically and mentally, and takes a lot of discipline.”
However, Peele believes the journey is a very rewarding experience, especially for the younger generation.
“Creating a canoe family helps teach kids to use their hands, teaches them to build things and to maintain discipline,” Peele said. “Working, endurance, learning, eating and everything that goes with it is very beneficial.”
The journey also helps bring tribes together in an effort to overcome challenges such as gang violence, alcoholism and drug use.
“Because drugs and alcohol have led to a significant loss of culture, a rule of the event is that it’s drug and alcohol free,” Ray said. “The Canoe Journey transforms whole communities. Now, tribal youth are participating in drum and dance groups and learning their traditional art like weaving and carving, staying out of trouble.”
Ray says that those participating also feel more connected to the waters of the Puget Sound and the life within them.
“There is a huge connection between mother nature and self,” Ray said. “When the tide is out, the table is set. A lot of native people eat shellfish more than any other group of people. When the water is sick, and the seafood gets sick, we get sick and the quality of life goes down. Then the economy goes down. A lot of tribal economy relies on fishing. For the past four years, we’ve worked with the United States Geologic Service (USGS) to measure salinity and oxygen and turbidity to take some measurements on what works better and how to take accurate measurements. The results showed that Hood Canal has been low oxygen for years. Now that we have proof we can get funding to help heal those waters. During the coming to shore ceremony, there is a healing of the water. Each person brings sacred water from their area and pours it into Puget Sound, to call to attention that we live and are sustained off the Puget Sound and the organisms in it. If we don’t take care of the water we won’t be taking care of ourselves.”
“It has definitely grown. First in 2005, there were 3,000 people to greet at the shore. Next year there were 4000, then 5,000 or 6,000, then 8,000,” Ray said. “It’s a canoe movement, and I’ve heard people call it a cultural resurgence.”
The journey also allows for personal growth as well.
“It’s a cultural, spiritual and personal journey,” Ray said. “Every year you learn something new. There is always something new to be had. I feel like I’m recharging my battery, and when you come back, it’s a cultural shock. You have to go back into a created world, and the canoe journey to those involved is the real world.”
“It’s a native event, by natives, for natives but also open to our friends and neighbors who want to come and watch,” Ray said. Many people from the community, native and non-native alike, are volunteering to pull off the huge event. Etiquette for observing the journey is posted on the Paddle to Squaxin website.
“I would like to see more of all people joining in and creating a canoe family,” Peele said. “Everyone can draw a positive experience from the journey.”
Bridget Ray provided comments based on her personal experience which may or may not reflect the view of tribal leadership of the Squaxin community.