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The power of the canoe | 2012 Canoe Journey

A canoe with sails pulls ashore in this old, undated photo from the Suquamish Museum. The canoe, for millennia an important part of Northwest Coast Native culture, is riding a cultural renaissance bolstered by the Canoe Journey, and helping to teach young people traditional values.       - Suquamish Museum
A canoe with sails pulls ashore in this old, undated photo from the Suquamish Museum. The canoe, for millennia an important part of Northwest Coast Native culture, is riding a cultural renaissance bolstered by the Canoe Journey, and helping to teach young people traditional values.
— image credit: Suquamish Museum

The Canoe Journey has been a regular part of the lives of most Northwest Coast Native people born in the 1980s and later.

But elders remember the decades of cultural drought that preceded the first Canoe Journey in 1989.

Beginning in the 1880s and until the 1950s, traditional ceremonies were illegal. From 1943 to 1970, the U.S. government sought to end its treaty relationship with Tribes. Then, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many Indians in Washington were arrested and jailed for exercising their treaty reserved rights to harvest salmon.

Rob Purser’s Skokomish grandmother told him of burying her regalia in the woods to hide it, to protect her participation in traditional religious ceremonies, he said at an oral history project lunch June 8. He told of how his grandfather escaped from a residential school at age 5 and camped in the woods as he headed home. He was captured, returned to school, placed in a straitjacket, and purposely dislocated his shoulder so he could get out and escape again.

Many Indians kept their culture to themselves for fear of being picked on, said Purser, Suquamish’s fisheries director.

“Nothing was taking place here,” Thomas Mabe said in a separate interview. “We knew what should be here. Fortunately, thanks to a lot of elders, we were able to keep our culture recoverable.”

It wasn’t easy. Rich Demain said of growing up in the 1930s and ’40s, “I was the only Indian kid in Bremerton. I felt different. I felt insecure. I felt lost.”

And the canoe — for millennia the form of transportation on the marine highways; the link to families, other communities and resources — was something seen more in books than on the water, as Indians began using watercraft used by the dominant culture, Mabe said.

Jump to 1989. Educator Emmett Oliver of the Quinault Nation was serving on the committee planning the state’s centennial celebration and was bothered that the indigenous canoe culture was being left out. Yachts and tall ships, in. Navy, in. Canoes, out.

Oliver pushed for inclusion. So, canoes from Suquamish traveled across the water to Seattle as part of the celebration, landing at Alki Point, and the Canoe Journey was born. Demain said when he saw the canoes, “Tears came to my eyes. I felt the ancestors were saying ‘Thank you for remembering us.’ ”

With its traditional protocols — asking permission to enter someone else’s territory, for example — and the mental, physical and spiritual discipline required for safe travel on the water, the Canoe Journey became a catalyst for a cultural renaissance.

This year, about 100 canoes from indigenous nations from throughout the Pacific Northwest will travel to the territory of the Squaxin Island Tribe, some traveling as far as 680 miles on the water and arriving July 29 for a weeklong cultural celebration. More than 70 communities will be visited along the way. All of the participating canoe cultures share their languages, dances and songs at each visit. There is honoring and gifting and sharing of traditional foods.

Canoes visit Port Gamble S’Klallam July 20 and Suquamish July 21-22.

Mabe said of the first Canoe Journey, “It sent a powerful message for our comeback.” Indeed. At the time, Tribal governments in Washington, affirmed as co-managers of salmon resources by the 1974 Boldt Decision, were leading habitat preservation and restoration efforts. Empowered by the Indian Gaming Act, they began investing in gaming, which generated the seed money for economic development. They worked for equities in economy, education, law and justice, and politics. And indigenous religious and cultural practices were now protected by law.

“We were always a people, but we had nothing to rally around,” Mabe said of life before the Canoe Journey. “The canoe signifies what used to be, that we didn’t let go of traditional ways and teachings.”

The Canoe Journey has become a means of passing down those teachings. Getting ready for the Journey means months of canoe practice, gift and regalia making, and practicing songs and dances that will be shared.

“Many teachings I didn’t know existed,” said Danita Santos, a Suquamish youth service worker whose first Canoe Journey was in 2004.

“It was like a cultural shock, to see how each (of the canoe families) has kept to their culture. It was powerful. “I thought, this is what my ancestors did. They want me to do it too.”

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STORIES IN THIS SERIES

— " 'Because of who we are': Gifting is an important part of the annual Canoe Journey, and of Native culture," page A1, June 8 North Kitsap Herald.

— "In Our Opinion: Our series on the Canoe Journey," page A4, June 8 North Kitsap Herald.

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