Canoe Journey builds bridges between cultures | Canoe Journey 2012

Since its inception, the Canoe Journey has built bridges of understanding between cultures.

For the non-Native community, the Journey is an entry into the ceremonies and longhouses, an introduction to the dances and songs, languages and protocols, gifting and sharing.

It’s also an opportunity to be involved, to be a part of what is arguably the largest cultural event in the Pacific Northwest. The Lummi Indian Nation’s hosting of the Canoe Journey in 2007 featured its first public potlatch in 70 years; a multicultural committee of residents from the area formed to raise money to help cover the costs of feeding thousands of people over the week. Skagit Valley College culinary students helped prepare food during the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community’s hosting of the Canoe Journey in 2011; they learned about traditional foods preparation and earned credit.

This year in Suquamish, as in past years, visitors will enjoy a dinner of salmon and crab provided by the Tribe, as well as side dishes provided by volunteers from the Suquamish Olalla Neighbors. Volunteers also help serve meals.

Sarah van Gelder is co-founder of Suquamish Olalla Neighbors, which for 10 years has co-hosted a Canoe Journey dinner and supplied volunteers at Suquamish.

“It’s been a really wonderful opportunity for those of us who are not involved in the Journey, who are not Tribal members, to participate and make a contribution and get to watch this extraordinary cultural event that happens in our own community,” she said. “It’s a real privilege to be a part of co-hosting with the Tribe one of two nights the visiting Tribes are here.”

Van Gelder said the big year was 2009, when Suquamish hosted for a week as the final destination of that year’s Journey. It took a tremendous number of volunteers.

“It was a real eye-opening experience for a lot of people, to see how well the Tribe is able to organize such a huge event. Thousands of people are in town for almost a week.”

“[Volunteers] see things like special care for elders. They see Tribes who come from such long distances and see different ways they show respect for each other and their ancestors.”

Jeromy Sullivan, chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, said the Journey builds bridges between generations as well.

“For example, my generation or my parents’ generation kind of lost the opportunity to practice our culture in this manner. Now we’re given the opportunity again to revive it,” he said.

“It’s a great outreach for our Tribal community to invite people. There’s a saying, ‘If you’ve heard about it, you’re invited.’

The Journey “[gives] people the opportunity to come and watch our canoe hosting and participate. They eat the food and interact with several Tribal communities that are on the shores …  It’s really great to have our neighbors show up and experience our culture for a day.”

Sullivan said he hopes the experience sticks with visitors. “We certainly try and make it so it does. It sticks with us for our lifetime, and we want that affect on other people.”

Karen Platt, co-chairwoman of Suquamish Olalla Neighbors, said the Canoe Journey is a cultural education experience.

“The first thing people realize when they participate is this is not a showpiece, it’s a living cultural tradition,” Platt said. “They see the canoes that people travel in from as far as Canada and Neah Bay. It’s incredible.”

Platt said the Canoe Journey is a great way to get to know Northwest Native culture. “People can sometimes feel like outsiders, but when they come here and interact with people, they see that’s the basis of this community — people around you active in helping others.”

Platt said the Suquamish Tribe appreciates the Native and non-Native community coming together to serve 4,000 people during the Journey. “They get so much community support from so many people in community. The Tribe gets a warm and loving message from the community here.”

Suquamish Tribe Chairman Leonard Forsman said the Canoe Journey is “a real positive opportunity for everyone to come together each summer."

“It’s an opportunity for us to have other members of our community help us continue and maintain our tradition of being good hosts to our visitors,” he said. "We like to demonstrate our cultural values through unity and demonstrate that in a tangible way to other communities as we travel through the waters of Puget Sound.”

The bridging of cultures continues on an intergovernmental level. The Squaxin Island Tribe is working in partnership with the City of Olympia and the Port of Olympia on a transportation and parking plan to accommodate visitors and participants, and the Olympia | Lacey | Tumwater Convention Bureau is promoting the event (

Canoes from Pacific Northwest indigenous nations will visit Port Gamble S’Klallam July 19 and Suquamish July 20-21 en route to the territory of the Squaxin Island Tribe July 29.

Charlene Krise, Squaxin Island Museum executive director, explains why the Canoe Journey is important.

“The power of the Canoe Journey reaches into the very depths of the spirit, mind and body of our Tribal people,” she said. “The Canoe Journey is so powerful in helping to retrieve, revive and empower Tribal people. We gain a positive outlook for the present and future generations.

“The Squaxin Island Tribe has chosen to honor the ‘Teachings of Our Ancestors’ as our guide for Paddle to Squaxin 2012. These teachings are the center of our lives and cultures. Our ancestors teach us that we must care for our elders, each other, our children, and the earth because each is a part of our past, present and future. The Canoe Journey is a reflection of this connection.”

As explained on the Paddle to Squaxin website, Pacific Northwest indigenous people navigated the Salish Sea for centuries in intricately carved dugout canoes. The Salish Sea — the body of water that encompasses Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia in Canada — was the central force that connected canoe cultures for communication and trade. But early federal mandates outlawed many indigenous traditions and ceremonial practices, resulting in the almost lost art of canoe building.

In 1989, the Paddle to Seattle was organized by Quinault educator Emmett Oliver for the state Centennial Celebration, and the Canoe Journey was born. Today, indigenous people from the Pacific Northwest, Canada, Hawaii, Japan, Mexico and New Zealand will participate.

— Megan Stephenson contributed to this report.


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— "Canoe Journey packs some economic punch," page A20, June 29 North Kitsap Herald.

— "Be a part of the Canoe Journey," page 1, June 29 Kitsap Week.

"Pulling in the Canoe Journey requires physical, spiritual fitness," page A1, June 22 North Kitsap Herald.

— "The Power of the Canoe," page A1, June 15 North Kitsap Herald.

— " '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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