Canoe Journey helps participants connect with who they are | Paddle to Quinault

Sammy Mabe of the Sacred Water Canoe Family sketches a canoe on a slab of wood, while Larry McGrady and Jon Kunkel put the finishing touch on their paddles Tuesday.  - Richard Walker / Herald
Sammy Mabe of the Sacred Water Canoe Family sketches a canoe on a slab of wood, while Larry McGrady and Jon Kunkel put the finishing touch on their paddles Tuesday.
— image credit: Richard Walker / Herald

SILVERDALE — Jon Kunkel lives 2,000 miles north of his ancestral Yaqui homeland of Sonora, Mexico. But the northwest Canoe Journey has helped the Silverdale resident connect to his identity as an indigenous person.

Kunkel, 18, sings and pulls with the Sacred Water Canoe Family, a Suquamish-based intertribal group. The week before canoes left the Suquamish reservation en route to Taholah on the Quinault reservation, Kunkel was at the home of Sacred Water canoe skipper Sammy Mabe, finishing the paddle he would use on the Canoe Journey.

Kunkel works on his paddle with the same care and respect that a Yaqui relative in Sonora would show while carving a pascola mask of cottonwood for a sacred dance. The pascola mask represents the mountain spirit that will mentor the pascola during his dance. Kunkel’s paddle is a symbol of thousands of years of travel on the ancestral waters of the Northwest’s First Peoples.

When Sacred Water’s canoe lands at indigenous territories en route to Taholah — Jamestown S’Klallam, Elwha Klallam, Makah, Quileute, Hoh —  Kunkel will drum and sing with Sacred Water at evening ceremonies that become a common ground. It’s a celebration of languages, traditions and values that are being carried on by a new generation.

The Canoe Journey, started in 1989 to reinstate traditional travel on the Salish Sea, has drawn the participation of other indigenous peoples, each of whom share their culture and gifts during the Journey: First Nations from Canada, Ainu from Japan, Maori from New Zealand, Kalaallit from Greenland, Yaqui from Mexico.

The Journey “is important to me because it's a time of intertribal unity and cultural revival within Native American tribes, along with different cultures and people like the Hawaiians and Maoris,” Kunkel said.

“I’ve learned that even though I’m not coastal, I can still relate to other indigenous people. And even though it may seem like all Native people are the same, we're not because we as Native individuals have our own history, traditions and customs but we can relate to one another because of our beliefs and cultural identity as indigenous people of this country.”

For Kunkel, who has lived in Silverdale for seven years, the Canoe Journey has been a lifeline to his heritage.

“Me, my three brothers, mom and dad moved up here from San Diego, Calif., seven years ago,” Kunkel said. “My dad was raised in Silverdale and graduated from CKHS; my mom's from San Diego.

“I first got involved with Canoe Journeys in 2009, Suquamish hosting. My aunt, Caren Trujillo, traveled with the Puyallup Canoe Family from the Puyallup Tribe, where she worked, and she asked us to come and visit her in Suquamish since we lived in Silverdale. She's been involved with Canoe Journeys for many years.”

Kunkel said he was “excited and nervous” when he first went to sea in Tetayeb, Sacred Waters’ canoe. “I [had] never pulled in a canoe before, only kayaked a couple of times,” he said. “When you pull in a canoe, you have to keep pace and stay in motion with the other pullers. You work as a team … we pull together as a family.”

Since becoming involved, the Canoe Journey — as well as his participation in other cultural events with Sacred Waters — has made a difference in Kunkel’s life. “It’s helped me realize how important it is to know who [I am] and where I come from as a Native American,” he said. “I started to pull, sing and dance with the Sacred Water Canoe Family about a year ago and from then on I wanted to learn more about my Yaqui Indian culture, heritage and ancestry.”

Charlene Krise of the Squaxin Island Tribe, which hosted the 2012 Canoe Journey, said in an earlier interview that the annual gathering of canoe cultures “reaches into the very depths of the spirit, mind and body of our Tribal people. 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.”

Each Canoe Journey has a theme. This year’s theme honors veterans. The 2012 theme honored the “Teachings of Our Ancestors.”

“These teachings are the center of our lives and cultures,” Krise said in 2012. “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."


Larry McGrady, 35, Hidatsa and Sto:lo: “This is my third year involved with Sacred Water. We’re family. It means everything and it’s changed all of our lives.”

Anthony Rinonos, 22: “The Canoe Journey changed my life right around. Coming here, singing, making paddles, it lifts my spirit.”

Sammy Mabe, 30, Suquamish: “We do this year-round. After the Journey, we don’t just put the canoe away and call it good for a year.”

Mabe: “I can’t put into words what I felt when I got hooked on the Canoe Journey … I knew I was in the right place.”

Mabe: “There is strength and medicine in the songs.”



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