2011 Canoe Journey: 'Our culture is still thriving. Our culture is still strong'

To pullers emerging from canoes on San Juan Island or Swinomish, the man greeting them on the beach was a bridge between past and present, a reminder of the lifeways their ancestors knew.

Chester Cayou, who passed away in August 2010 at the age of 87, remembered Coast Salish gatherings during his youth on an island once known as Kwuh-nuhs. He remembered big canoes slicing through Haro Strait, and the songs carried in the air before the canoes arrived.

He remembered the teachings of lifeways that sustained the People for millennia and were passed from generation to generation – lifeways that were centered around those things of which he always spoke: loving, caring and sharing.

During his childhood, cultural practices of familial and communal importance – such as potlatching, spirit dancing and winter ceremonies -- were illegal in Washington state and in Canada. The residential school system forbid him from speaking Saanich. In World War II, he witnessed the brutality of war.

Yet, he never lost faith in the capacity of humankind to love. He saw it in his culture, in everyday expressions of caring, in commitment and hard work to meet the needs of others.

And now, during the Canoe Journey, he saw it all coming back. This is how it was, he would tell pullers arriving in canoes during the journey. This is how it was, dear ones -- this is how your families lived. They gathered and loved one another and cared for each other and shared with one another. And then he would give them permission to come ashore and be cared for, to share meals and dances and songs, to pass on the love. And the languages would be spoken, the ancestors’ songs would be sung, the culture would survive.

Cayou’s teachings of loving, caring and sharing were adopted as the theme of this year’s Canoe Journey, the gathering of Northwest Coast Native nations via the ancestral marine highways. And longhouses throughout the Northwest were filled with songs, dances and appreciation.

“There was a time when the government tried to take this away from us,” Tulalip’s Ray Fryberg said Friday in Suquamish’s House of Awakened Culture. “The government thought this was all bad, but it was all spiritual to us. It’s spiritual because we put our prayers into it.”

As Tulalip took the floor, children and toddlers dressed in cedar headbands and decorated shawls danced confidently on the floor with adults.

“This younger generation is going to carry it on,” Fryberg said. “We’re caring and sharing with one another … Our culture is still thriving. Our culture is still strong.”

Roberta Adams of the Dandalia Canoe Family of Vancouver Island talked about the healing that comes from pulling in the Canoe Journey; it requires mental, physical and spiritual discipline.

“Each pull you take, pull for your ancestors,” she said. “Pull for your children in the hospital. Pull for your families back home. Leave behind your alcohol, leave behind your drugs and we will all get here happy.”

Canoe cultures from the Pacific Rim have been drawn to the Canoe Journey by their shared experience of cultural oppression from settlement and government policies.

“It’s in the heart,” Joe Conrad, Maori, said of what unites canoe cultures. “The canoe and the water, that’s what joins us. The same water that laps on this shore lapped on our shores.” In all cultures, pulling in a canoe is healing because “in a canoe, everyone has to pull, everyone has to do their part. The canoe and the water don’t distinguish between people.”

Hector Busby, 78, a master Maori carver, said the revival of the Maori canoe culture has been healing for young Maori. They learn about their ancestors, how they traveled great distances navigating by the stars, and how their lifeways sustained them since time immemorial.

“A lot of our young people were getting into trouble. They didn’t know who they are. But they are learning about their culture, and they are learning they can stand proud.”

There’s a lot to be proud of, indeed. Busby and his crew of 14 paddled the Te Aurere, a 57-foot double-hulled voyaging canoe or waka, from the Marquesas Islands to Hawai’i in 17 days. And on Hawai’i, Busby and a crew of six built a 51-foot canoe of albasia wood in 12.5 days.

Since building Maori’s first canoe in 49 years in 1989, Busby has built 31 canoes. He said he next wants to carve a canoe at Suquamish.

Governor will arrive at Swinomish by canoe on Monday
About 100 canoes are expected to arrive Monday at the shores of the 2011 Canoe Journey host, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, near La Conner. Media coordinator Robin Carneen said she has received press credential requests from 20 media organizations. Some 8,000 pounds of salmon are being prepared for the 15,000 guests expected to attend the week-long celebration, which concludes July 31.

Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby said Gov. Chris Gregoire will pull in his canoe Monday. She and other pullers will arrive to a stunning sight: Three large pavilions shaped like woven cedar hats; the pavilions are patterned after a hat made for Cladoosby by 2011 Canoe Journey coordinator Aurelia Washington. Al Charles, Lower Elwha Klallam, carved the red and black salmon panels on the posts of the pavilions. The pavilions are arguably the largest Northwest Coast Native public art in the region and are visible to the estimated 1 million people who visit La Conner, across Swinomish Channel, every year.

The pavilions feature interpretive panels about the Canoe Journey, the Great Flood, and the village of Txiwuc that was at the landing site. A native-plant garden and interpretive panels line a walkway to the pavilions.

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