Canoe journey marks spiritual resurgence for tribes

SUQUAMISH -- When Bardow Lewis was a youngster, there was no paddle journey.

"When I was a kid you couldn't find a canoe," said the Suquamish Tribal Council member Monday, watching as a flotilla of about 100 traditional cedar canoes pulled into the Suquamish waterfront.

"You could hardly find a drum."

As the Suquamish Tribe celebrates with fellow coastal tribes at this week's Tribal Journey 2009, the tribe is witnessing a resurgence of a culture once shoved to the margins.

Additionally, kids are being immersed in an invigorated Native American culture, growing up with the journeys as annual events.

On the first day of the five-day Paddle to Suquamish, Lewis estimated the crowd at about 5,000.

"This is a cultural statement to the world, that we are alive and well," said Chief Frank Nelson of the Heiltsuk First Nation in British Columbia, in his formal request that the crew of his canoe be allowed ashore.

Anastasia Nahanee, 16, who hails from north Vancouver Island, arrived alive and well after 12 days at sea.

Undaunted, she called the trip a spiritual journey.

"This is like our ancestor's highway," she said, "this is the way they traveled."

In addition to travel, the canoe represented a potent symbol of healing. In the 1800s new technology outpaced the traditional canoes, and with the advent of the marine motor they all but disappeared. In the mid 1980s artists began carving new canoes, and captains began reviving the role of the canoe among Northwest coastal nations.

The formal process of asking for permission to land, and receiving it, is called protocol, and is one of the traditions kept alive, along with teaching the songs and traditions.

But in many ways it is the canoes that revive Native culture by focusing the attention and energy of tribal members on the journey, bonding them together, said Albie Charlie, from the Cowichan Tribe of Vancouver Island.

He used the Cowichan word, "natsammaat," which translates into "one mind, one spirit."

Kat Jones, 24, of the Tulalip Tribes in Snohomish County, made most of the trip across the Puget Sound as a crew member, but a bad sunburn ended her turn at the paddle.

"You pull and pull and pull and after awhile you are done," she said, adding that she didn't have reservations about giving her seat and paddle to another.

"If you are sick it makes it heavier" for others to paddle, she said.

U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, is scheduled to be recognized at the gathering Tuesday. On Monday he came just to watch.

"There's nothing more joyous than seeing a cultural rebirth," he said.

The first modern paddle journey took place in 1989, in honor of the state of Washington's centennial, when a group of coastal tribes paddled to Seattle. At the end of the event, a challenge was issued to all canoe families to rebuild and then regroup for another journey.

In addition to canoes from coastal tribes, canoes from as far away as Hawaii and New Zealand were welcomed by the Suquamish.

That means a lot of hungry people, and the tribe prepared for them.

Standing sentry by cook fires for salmon, clams and oysters, Wayne George, executive director for the tribe, said he expected to feed about 10,000, the most he's ever cooked for in 40 years of preparing meals for tribal events.

The numbers speak for themselves: eight cords of alder firewood, 5,500 pounds of silver salmon and 15 helpers.

Maybe it was just luck, but George was thankful the record-breaking heat of last week faded in time for the arrival of the canoes.

"This is fine," he said, smiling in the 75-degree afternoon. "This is bearable."

Andrew Binion of the North Kitsap Herald and Tad Sooter of the Bainbridge Island Review contributed to this report. Staff Photos by Brad Camp and Tad Sooter

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