Opinion

Remembering the Paddle to Seattle: 'Their shoulders bore the traditions of eight millennia' | Canoe Journey

The Port Gamble S
The Port Gamble S'Klallam canoe skippered by Laura Price heads to Neah Bay during the 2010 Canoe Journey / Paddle to Makah.
— image credit: Tad Sooter / 2010

(Editor's note: Marylin Bard, daughter of noted Quinault educator Emmett Oliver, gave this speech July 9 at Coast Salish Day, Boulevard Park, Bellingham, about the birth of the modern Canoe Journey in 1989).

I am going to speak on behalf of my father and take you back through some 22 years or more of the history of the Paddle to Seattle, share his recollections and those of others who were first involved in the project, and what it has become today.

In 1987, my father, Emmett Oliver, sat on the Washington State Centennial Commission, along with First Lady Jean Gardner and Secretary of State Ralph Munro. Emmett was the coordinator of the Native American Canoe Project for the Maritime Committee. As a member of this committee of the Heritage Council, this idea came to him in 1985. Then in the next few years, he was to create and stage it. In short, he was able to get 13 tribes interested, which grew to 18 canoes.

He, with the help of others, was able to secure the donations of cedar logs and arranged for the transportation of the logs. The Lummi Community College provided carving instructions. The Quileutes made carving and paddling part of their Indian Cultural Education Program for their schools. The entire project helped recapture and preserve the disappearing art and unique tradition of canoe carving.

The Suquamish and the Duwamish were the host tribes for this event. Canoes were to come from Washington and Canada to Suquamish, the official host of the final leg of the Quileutes’ two-week voyage to Seattle. The flotilla of Native canoes would then make a seven-mile journey from Suquamish to Golden Gardens Park on Shilshole Bay on Friday, July 21, 1989, where the Duwamish would host them to come ashore.

The Heiltsuk delegation from Canada and the Hoh from the Pacific Coast of Washington joined up with the Lummi as they continued their journey south, gathering strength with the Nooksack, Upper Skagit, Swinomish, Samish, Tulalip, to give support to their Native sisters and brothers of Washington state. The canoes from other tribes included the Lower Elwha Klallam, Port Gamble S’Klallam, Skokomish, Puyallup, Nisqually, and United Indians of All Tribes.

The state said, in 1985, dugout canoes were almost a lost art in the Pacific Northwest, found mostly in museums. The idea was to have the tribes carve their own canoes, assemble at a rendezvous, paddle across Puget Sound to Seattle on a bright summer day, camp in a park, and spend two days canoe racing on the sound and enjoying time together celebrating cherished features of Northwest Coast culture.

This was a great idea, but there were some practical limitations: Were the tribes willing to participate, and who? Were there enough canoes left? Or could enough be built or carved in time for the state's Centennial? Were there sufficient canoe carvers to make them? Could the state and the forest service be persuaded to part with old-growth, five-foot diameter, 70-foot-high cedars needed for the canoes? How were they to transport the cedar logs to the reservations? Would the state and the city be willing to receive the paddlers? Would there be enough money from the budget to support this event?

There were some answers to these questions.

As important as the canoe is to Native lore and way of life, the people saw the value in restoring something tangible of the past.

The planning started in April of 1986 but the carving could not begin until the permits were granted and the giant cedar trees were found, felled and transported. Some hadn’t carved a canoe in over 50 years. Some who volunteered had never carved a canoe before.

The trees for the Swinomish, Upper Skagit, Nooksack and Lummi tribes came from Baker Lake. The U.S. Forest Service gave permission to fell 600-year-old cedars under the 1978 Religious Freedom Act, becauseof the canoe’s religious and ceremonial nature.

Two trees were felled for each tribe. They were blessed and a prayer was said for each tree, as it was giving its life for a new life as a canoe. Elders were moved to tears watching their heritage come back to life.

In 1987, the participating tribes gathered to form carving workshops and the “Paddle to Seattle” name was coined by the Quileutes and soon became the popular name for the project. Then more cedar trees were needed, even bigger ones, and the National Guard was able to come to the need once again, along with some private companies, to haul out the trees ...

Framed by the rising skyline of the city, 18 canoes were ready to paddle across the sound, with my father aboard a Coast Guard command vessel with radio patrolling the route. Five thousand people, including press and television reporters, welcomed the canoes to Shilshole Bay, where Native Americans had not landed in more than a century, welcomed by the Duwamish.

The Seattle Times reported, “A roar of encouragement arose from the beach in a great surge of pride for the carvers, the canoes, and the paddlers who performed as though they had manned those canoes lifelong.” Their shoulders bore the traditions of eight millennia. They celebrated with a feast, song, dance and drumming. The racing started and lasted two days — the same celebrations as today’s Canoe Journeys, with the same feeling but with many more canoes.

— Bard and her father will be at the canoe landing at Swinomish July 25. "We will be there right in front ... This is always a thrilling and inspirational event, watching the canoes and excitement of the pullers," she said.

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