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2017 Canoe Journey: A Time of Awareness for ‘Keepers of Tradition and Protectors of Circle of Life’

For the Samish and Swinomish nations, the visit to San Juan Island en route to Vancouver Island during the Canoe Journey will likely be an emotional one.

For the Samish and Swinomish nations, the visit to San Juan Island en route to Vancouver Island during the Canoe Journey will likely be an emotional one.

The San Juan Islands are the point of origin for several Coast Salish nations. Most Coast Salish people were nudged or forced off the islands by treaty, relocation to reservations, and the homestead era. But their relationship with their ancestral islands never ceased – in fact, that relationship is growing stronger.

Pullers will pass Shaw Island’s Reef Net Bay, which was formerly called Squaw Bay but was changed this year to honor the Coast Salish reef-net fishing history there.


They might pass Friday Harbor, where Musqueam artist Susan Point’s Coast Salish house posts overlook the harbor and tell of the relationship between the island’s First People and the environment that sustains them.

They will pass Stuart Island, where Rick Guard, a member of the Mitchell Bay Band of Indians who also has Swinomish ancestry, fishes his family’s ancestral reef-net site.

They will visit Pe'pi'ow'elh, a village site on Garrison Bay where the grandparents’ grandparents lived until British Royal Marines destroyed a 600- to 800-foot longhouse there and established their encampment during the U.S.-British military occupation of the island from 1859-1872. In summer 2016, the language and the songs returned to this place when a Reef Net Camp Story Pole was erected and dedicated here.

They will pass Henry Island, the home of sweh-tuhn, the First Man and a common ancestor to many Coast Salish people.

And then they will continue on the ancestral marine highways, traveling the way their ancestors did, ultimately reaching the final destination of the We Wai Kai and We Wai Kum First Nations at Campbell River for a week of celebration and – in the words of one late culture bearer – “loving, caring and sharing with one another.”

“We are expecting 100 canoes will land on the Campbell River Spit on Saturday, August 5, greeted by thousands of spectators who will line the shores,” Jodi Simkin wrote in an email. She is executive director of Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre in Cape Mudge, Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

“This year’s Canoe Journey is the 27th. Most of the young people born since the Paddle to Seattle in 1989 know nothing but summers of canoe practices and travel upon ancestral waters to other tribal nations and the sharing of cultures.

Eric Day, a Swinomish canoe skipper, said the Canoe Journey is a powerful experience for young pullers.

“When they finish the Journey, we talk about how, whether they realize it or not, they achieved a significant goal. And nobody can take that away from you,” Day said.

“A number of kids are now adults, grown up and living their own lives. A majority of them gained confidence from participating in the Journey. They know they can get through those difficult challenges in life. The Journey gives them that confidence to be able to do that. It breaks the cycle [of destructive behavior]. They don’t have to walk down that path of addiction.”

The Canoe Journey is an annual gathering of canoe cultures from throughout the Northwest. Participation requires mental, physical and spiritual discipline. Pullers pull for great distances – Campbell River is about 200 nautical miles from Seattle – and must be supportive of each other (“The weary paddler resting is still ballast,” according to a Quileute canoe family’s “Ten Rules of the Canoe”).

At each stop up to and including the final destination, canoe skippers ask – often in their Nation’s language – for permission to come ashore. Guests enjoy hosted dinners of traditional foods, and the evenings are filled with the sharing of traditional songs, dances and gifting.

The cultural reconnection sparked by the Canoe Journey has inspired similar journeys elsewhere; the Wadopana (pronounced Wa-DOH-pa-nah) Nakoda of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana will host a canoe journey on the Missouri River this year to promote their annual Wadopana Celebration, August 5-7. “Wadopana” means “canoe paddler.”

And Indigenous Peoples throughout the world have traveled to participate in the Northwest Canoe Journey, among them Ainu from Japan, Inuit from Alaska and Greenland, and Indigenous Peoples from Brazil and Mexico.

Shirley Williams, a cultural educator from the Lummi Nation, talked about how the Canoe Journey reconnects young people with that which was almost taken from them, and for which so many have worked so hard to regain.

Williams helped start a summer program to introduce Lummi youth to the San Juan Islands and ancestral ways, and said many young participants were not aware of their ties to the islands or of their treaty-protected rights and responsibilities there. The indigenous signatories to the Treaty of Point Elliott of 1855 reserved certain rights throughout their historical territories, including the islands; by virtue of a 1974 federal court decision which upheld Native fishing rights, the islands’ First Nations and Washington State are co-managers of the state’s salmon populations.

“I hope our youth get to experience a sense of place – knowledge of their ancestral homelands, an education of our pre- and post-historical connection as Straits Salish salt water people,” Williams said.

“I hope the youth remember they are the keepers of the tradition and protectors of the circle of life, and to always honor our Chi'lange'lth (inherent birth rights). The Creator gave us the sacred responsibility to the land, water, reef-net, salmon, animals, and language. If it is not supported, it is cultural and spiritual genocide.”