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The life lessons of the Canoe Journey | Editor's Notebook
POULSBO — In many ways, the Canoe Journey is a metaphor for life. What happens in life often happens on the Journey. And yet, the Journey, like life, goes on.
You persevere. You stick together. And you go on.
The grandparents and great-grandparents persevered. Despite government attempts to erase the culture by outlawing cultural and religious practices and sending children to residential schools to force assimilation, the culture survives.
Today, children dance their grandparents’ dances and sing their great-grandparents’ songs. The languages of the grandparents and great-grandparents are spoken on the beaches and in the longhouse ceremonies. And the Canoe Journey has reinstated the presence of the Northwest Coast’s indigenous peoples on the marine highways their ancestors traveled.
The grandparents and great-grandparents taught honor, love and respect, three ancient values that helped them survive a time of tumultuous change. Those values are helping a family as it mourns the loss of a loved one in Little Boston.
On July 20, during protocol in the Port Gamble S’Klallam longhouse, time was set aside to honor the one who had passed, to lift up the family with love. On July 23, S’Klallam canoes were taken out of the water. On July 24, S’Klallam’s journey was to resume. Just like in life — loved ones pass, we mourn together, we help each other get through it, and we continue on our life’s journey.
This reminded me of earlier Journeys. In 2009, during the Paddle to Suquamish, the Sliammon canoe family pulled its canoes from the water as it mourned the loss of a loved one. As the announcement was made, at Birch Bay in Nooksack territory, a storm rolled in and rain fell.
Leslie Eastwood, general manager of the Samish Indian Nation, told the gathering at the time, as reported in a story I wrote for Indian Country Today, “I think we’re being blessed by Mother Nature here. She’s blessing us, washing away some of the tears, washing away anything that’s negative. That’s what I’ve heard, when it rains like this, it washes it all away. Any bad feelings and any sadness is going to be leaving us now on this journey.”
The next day, the skies were clear and the air warm, and the Journey continued.
The grandparents and great-grandparents taught that you can’t carry anger and be mentally, physically and spiritually prepared to pull on the water. Anger “has to be thrown overboard, so the sea can cleanse it,” state the “Ten Rules of the Canoe,” developed by a Quileute canoe family in 1990.
The grandparents and great-grandparents taught that it’s important to take care of yourself, so you can help others. That’s another principle of the Canoe Journey: “Always nourish yourself,” the “Ten Rules” state. “A paddler who doesn’t eat at the feasts doesn’t have enough strength to paddle in the morning … The gift of who you are only enters the world when you are strong enough to own it.
The grandparents and great-grandparents taught that everyone has a gift, everyone is important. Again, from the “Ten Rules”: “The bow, the stern, the skipper, the power puller in the middle – everyone is part of the movement. The elder sits in her cedar at the front, singing her paddle song, praying for us all. The weary paddler resting is still ballast.” Another Canoe Journey lesson: Conditions, like life, can sometimes be tough. But as in life, you have to keep on keepin’ on. Canoe pullers experience that when they participate in evening protocols, hit the sack after midnight, then get up before sunrise because the tide is right and you have to get underway.
And, as in life, you have to know when to ask for help. “You are important to your family and friends,” Elaine Grinnell of Jamestown S’Klallam said. If you need help — whether it’s carrying a canoe in from the beach, or preparing and serving a meal for hundreds, or packing gear as support crew, or beating an addiction — “all you have to do is extend your hand, and ask.”
Sure, we can try and go it alone in life. But, as Grinnell said during a chat on the beach at Suquamish, “it’s the team that gets you where you want to go.”