Sharing the 'legacies of our ancestors so we can stand proud' | 2012 Canoe Journey

The Chehalis canoe family enters Suquamish
The Chehalis canoe family enters Suquamish's House of Awakened Culture for protocol, Saturday during the 2012 Canoe Journey/Paddle to Squaxin.
— image credit: Richard Walker

SUQUAMISH – The song arrived first, carried over the water, as Joe Waterhouse watched for the first canoes to come in against the tide and wind Friday at Point Julia on the Port Gamble S'Klallam reservation.

The Canoe Journey has brought history around full circle for the 81-year-old military retiree and Klallam historian. He grew up in Port Hadlock – which he knew as Tsetsibus, which means “Where the sun rises” – and visited the village at Point Julia in the 1930s, traveling here by canoe with a relative, Lach-ka-nim, son of Klallam leader Chetzemoka.

That visit was the last time Waterhouse traveled in a canoe. In the ensuing years, he found himself living in a cultural drought: residential school, placement with a foster family on an Illinois farm, a career in the military. Then, renewal: the birth of the modern Canoe Journey in 1989 and that historic landing at Alki Beach that year. And on this day, he again watched what was once banned – the language, the songs, the dances – carried on by a new generation.

Asked what he wants young people to take with them from the Journey, he said, “I want them to learn more about their culture, about their people and how they lived. This culture was different than any other culture in the world.”

Appropriate that the theme of the 2012 Canoe Journey/Paddle to Squaxin is “Teachings of Our Ancestors.” That those teachings were being absorbed by a new generation was apparent. It was apparent in Lil’ S‘Klallam Princess Jayla Moon, as she welcomed a canoe to Point Julia and gave permission for pullers to come ashore.

It was apparent in Shane Baze, a 10-year-old Port Gamble S’Klallam, who gave baggies of deer jerky to people in the S’Klallam longhouse during protocol; the meat was from the first deer he hunted.

It was apparent in Tahahawat Payne-Sablam, a Quileute fourth-grader, who danced a wolf dance to honor a mentor, George Jones of Port Gamble S’Klallam. Tahahawat also presented Jones with a woven cedar hat. The act was one of love as well as courage and discipline: Tahahawat is very shy, yet he danced and made the presentation in front of about 200 people.

There would be more examples over the weekend as the Journey visit continued at Little Boston and moved on to Suquamish.

At Little Boston, Russell Fulton watched as his adult nephew, Benji Ives, led a team of cooks in steaming and cooking crab, clams and oysters to feed more than 1,000 guests Friday. Ives said his uncle taught him the way to properly steam and cook seafood the way the family has done it for seven generations.

The next day, at Suquamish, Chief Seattle Days Junior Princess Hailey Crow welcomed arriving canoes. After the Ahousaht First Nation canoe arrived, Noah Thomas stood in the canoe and offered a song in a clear, confident voice that seemed to wow people on the beach.

Noah has been singing since he was 3. “It’s already there,” Makah elder Tony Johnson said of Noah’s song. “We bring it out. We don't have to force it, but we encourage it.”

Later Saturday, in Suquamish’s House of Awakened Culture, the Chehalis canoe family entered with a paddle song that filled the longhouse. Skipper Gail White Eagle said Chehalis bought its canoe six years ago. “It was the first canoe in Chehalis territory in 100 years,” she said. “We’re a young canoe family. But these young people are going to carry it on.”

Willie Seymour and the Kw’umut Lelum canoe family offered a journey song that was handed down to him by his grandfather. The song has a lot of meaning to this canoe family, whose members are foster children with Kw’amut Lelum Child and Family Services of Vancouver Island, B.C.

Seymour, whose indigenous name is Kwul’lh’itstun, said learning the lifeways and values of their ancestors is “giving these children back their spirits” and contributing to cultural continuity.

“We share the legacies of our ancestors so we can stand proud,” he said. “There is a rule in our culture, ‘Respect others and respect ourselves.’ We’re all on a journey that is not without obstacles. But we can overcome obstacles with love, by forgiving one another and embracing one another.”

As she watched canoes arrive at Suquamish Saturday afternoon, Elaine Grinnell of Jamestown S’Klallam said the ancestral values taught during the Canoe Journey are the same values that helped the People adapt and survive in a changing society. Those values include “raising a happy family and being responsible for others around you,” she said. “Our families are like anyone’s family ought to be. We shouldn’t have children who commit suicide or take drugs to feel good.”

To those in the canoes, the Journey teaches “how interdependent we are as a community. It’s the team that gets you where you need to go,” she said. That rule applies in the water and in life.

To non-Native observers, the Journey teaches “a deeper understanding of our culture, of the importance of culture and family and friends.”

In 1989, the Canoe Journey, originally called “Paddle to Seattle,” was organized as part of the Washington State Centennial; it led to a revival of the canoe culture and reinstated the indigenous presence on the ancestral highways of the coastal Pacific Northwest. Every year, about 100 indigenous canoes travel from their territories to a host nation, with stops at indigenous territories along the way, for celebration and cultural sharing. Participation in the Canoe Journey has grown to include canoe cultures from Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, Florida, Oregon, Canada, Japan and New Zealand.

Twenty-seven canoes visited Port Gamble S’Klallam on Friday; 32 canoes stopped at Suquamish on Saturday. Canoes depart Suquamish on Monday morning for points south en route to the territory of the Squaxin Island Tribe, July 29 to Aug. 5.

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