'To celebrate what it means to be who we are' | Canoe Journey

The Port Gamble S’Klallam canoe Noo Kayet nears Neah Bay during the 2010 Paddle to Makah. - Tad Sooter / 2010
The Port Gamble S’Klallam canoe Noo Kayet nears Neah Bay during the 2010 Paddle to Makah.
— image credit: Tad Sooter / 2010

This July, more than 100 canoes from Indian nations across the region will embark on the yearly tribal Canoe Journey. Canoeing has been a part of the Native way of life for thousands of years. Not only are canoes a distinctive cultural symbol, but they are a practical and essential means of transportation, especially for coastal tribes.

For the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, they have even served as something akin to mass transit. When our people were relocated to Point Julia, those who worked at the Port Gamble sawmill used canoes to cross the bay.

The first Tribal Journeys event — the Paddle to Seattle — took place in 1989 and coincided with the bicentennial celebration for Washington State. Nine canoes participated, including one from the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe.

In 1993, Tribal Journeys inaugurated an annual celebration with 23 canoes making the trek to Bella Bella, B.C. Since then, the event has grown in anticipation and participation. Canoe families from all over the Pacific Northwest train through the year to build the strength and endurance they’ll need for the journey.

Led this year by Francine Swift, the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe’s Canoe Family will join the journey on July 20 after canoes from other tribes arrive at Point Julia and we host these weary travelers for the night. On July 25, the pullers will arrive at the Swinomish reservation for a week-long event, which includes songs, dances, and traditions unique to the participating tribes.

There are many tribes around the region and some of us are close neighbors, but that doesn’t mean we always practice the same traditions. Tribal Journeys is a way for our communities to celebrate what it means to be who we are.

I want to leave you with a few pieces of wisdom learned from Tribal Journeys. This is an excerpt from 10 Rules of the Canoe, developed by the Quileute Canoe Contingent in 1990. These insights are essentially  rules to live by while in the canoe, but in their simplicity and truth they are good points to remember in everyday life.

1. Every stroke we take is one less we have to make. Keep going!

2. There is to be no abuse of self or others. Respect and trust cannot exist in anger. It has to be thrown overboard, so the sea can cleanse it.

3. Be flexible. The adaptable animal survives.

4. The gift of each enriches us all. Every story is important. The bow, the stern, the skipper, the power puller in the middle — everyone is part of the movement.

5. We all pull and support each other. Nothing occurs in isolation.

6. A hungry person has no charity. Always nourish yourself. The bitter person, thinking that sacrifice means self-destruction, shares mostly anger.

7. Experiences are not enhanced through criticism. Who we are, how we are, what we do, why we continue flourish with tolerance.

8. The journey is what we enjoy. Being part of the journey requires great preparation; being done with a journey requires great awareness; being on the journey, we are much more than ourselves.

9. A good teacher allows the students to learn. We can berate each other, try to force each other to understand, or we can allow each paddler to gain awareness through the ongoing journey.

10. When given any choice at all, be a worker bee — make honey!

— Jeromy Sullivan is chairman of the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe. This column was originally published in the July Kingston Community News.

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