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'Because of who we are' | 2012 Canoe Journey
When attending a celebration, such as a wedding, western cultural tradition is to bring a gift to the hosts.
In Northwest Coast Native culture, the gifting ceremony is an immensely important, elaborate protocol called potlatch — it is the hosts that give gifts to those who are there.
“They are gifting us for honoring them with our attention,” said Laura Price, a Port Gamble S’Klallam Canoe Family organizer and skipper. “It’s a payment of gratitude, love and respect.”
Gifting is an important aspect of the annual Canoe Journey, beginning its 23rd year June 20. The Journey is a revival of a traditional form of travel, shared among more than 100 Northwest Coast First Nations and Tribes. The canoes travel from their territories to a different host nation every year, stopping in other indigenous communities along the way to share their culture, gifts and songs, and reconnect.
This year, thousands of pullers (the term for paddlers in the canoe), support teams and guests will descend on the Port Gamble S’Klallam and Suquamish reservations July 20-22, before the Journey ends in Squaxin, near Olympia, July 29.
Many gifts aren’t material things, such as when rare songs or dances are shared. But each Tribe prepares thousands of gifts for the other canoe families and guests along the way — gifts that represent each Tribe’s unique traditions and local materials.
“I don’t know why the non-Indian way is the way things are done,” said Tina Jackson, Suquamish cultural activities coordinator. “For us, you don’t know your wealth by how much you accumulate. It is shown by how much you can help people.”
Jackson said they give a variety of gifts — smaller tokens for the guests along the way, and larger offerings for host Tribes and Squaxin. Elders sometimes donate canned salmon and jam, and the Tribe also has a commemorative T-shirt made.
For the smaller gifts, of which they will need more than 1,000, Suquamish community members have been making beaded necklaces since April. Jackson said Suquamish has its own traditional bead designs, using larger beads, shells and bone. The harder it was to find shells and minerals that provided traditional beads, the more value they held.
In ancestral times, a wealthy, noble person would wear a necklace of those materials down to his or her ankles, but during a ceremony would break it apart and hand out the pieces, Jackson said.
“[Wealth] is shown by how much you can help people,” Jackson said. “It’s the way we were raised — we’re thankful for what we have, and grateful that we can help someone. And it comes around … when you need help, [the community is] there.”
That reciprocity is the basis of tribal gift giving, said Francine Swift, president of this year’s Port Gamble S’Klallam Canoe Family. Rather than tallying up who gives what or how much, it is the symbolic — and often literal — effort behind how the gift came together that gives a gift its importance.
At a recent canoe family meeting at the Port Gamble S’Klallam cultural center, members discussed what to make as a gift. When one young man, Eric Hasley, presented a batch of stripped cedar bark he and his siblings gathered, the group decided cedar would be a perfect gift.
Finding and properly harvesting cedar is hard work, Price said. But giving a gift that takes time and sweat, one that you cannot find in any store, is a priceless gift. Holding a piece of stripped, hardened cedar, “This is love and appreciation,” she said.
Port Gamble S’Klallam community members will spend the next month or so collecting cedar bark, oil, and ingredients for traditional medicines for their gifts.
This way of hospitality is in their blood, Swift said.
“It’s because of who we are,” she said. “That’s the best thing of what we have left of who we were.”