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Canoe journey challenges the heart and soul

TAHOLAH, Wash. ? It was supposed to be the last 32 miles of the 312-mile Tribal Canoe Journey to Quinault, a mere three hours out of the 17 days many had already traveled. But no one aboard the 20 canoes knew when they left their host village at the Hoh reservation on the coast of Washington State that the dense Pacific Ocean fog would never lift. Or, that by the time they reached the mouth of the Queets River, one canoe would capsize and the rest be fighting high winds and ocean swells that would lift the bows six feet off the water. After what turned out to be a 10 to 12 hour day, motorized support boats safely redirected the canoes to Point Grenville, well south of their original destination.

"I've never seen so many Indians pleased to be on shore," said Quinault Nation Tribal Chair Pearl Capoemen-Baller. "It literally took their emotional and spiritual strength to join us here. They truly knew the meaning of being tired and hungry."

The canoe used to be to the Northwest Indian what the horse was to the Plains People. It was essential to hunting seal, sea lion and whale, to fishing on the rivers, to carrying trade goods and supplies and for traveling long distances. The ocean-going vessels today are made just as they once were, sleek and stable at 30 to 32 feet long and just four to five feet wide. They are easily dwarfed in size by ocean swells of even moderate height. River canoes are traditionally smaller for ease in maneuvering rapids or "poling" through shallow waters.

The first inter-tribal canoe journey since pre-treaty times took place in 1989 during the Washington State Centennial Celebration. It was a way of commemorating the tradition of the canoe to many tribes, said organizers. In 1998, during the Power Paddle to Puyallup, the Quinault Tribe answered the Puyallup Tribe's four-year challenge and offered to host the 2002 journey.

"It is important to remember our traditions," said Allen Frasier, Canoe Journey coordinator from the Nisqually Tribe, "because with them come the traditional values of respect, forgiveness, humility, commitment and personal responsibility.

"I believe the number one problem for Indian people is that we have been dehumanized, oppressed, treated so brutally during our colonial experience. Our hearts have been broken. We are living out the phenomenon we call inter-generational grief."

Because their grief is intangible in many ways, people have learned to deny their feelings, Frasier said. The only feelings expressed are internalized anger, or futility. "The Nisqually Tribe is a good example of this because of the cluster of suicides we had."

Frasier refers to the series of 15 suicides the Nisqually people faced in a single decade. Frasier's own son was one of the losses.

"Our young people are sharp, they see only dead-end streets ahead of them. We had to start asking, 'What can we do to make life worth living? What can we do to create faith, to create hope?'"

"Modern life fragments us with so much to do. We have so little energy at the end of the day." The natural human desire to be a part of a larger family explains modern gangs, he says.

"With the canoe journey you forget about time and schedules. Families have time to bond. Everyone becomes part of the canoe family. You begin to believe in yourself and that people are there to support you, to love you unconditionally." But long days paddling mixed with short nights setting up camp or socializing, can cause natural conflict between people, too, agreed Frasier. "You have to keep the bigger picture in mind and remember that some of the new people are just learning how to be functional in the community again. They may be tied into old power struggles or ways to resolve conflict."

"Our Elders provide the most profound teachings about new ways to handle problems," Frasier said. "They are like a university!"

Frasier recalled an incident in 1997 during the journey from Akalot to Vancouver, B.C., in which a female Indian leader had been accused of taking drugs because she was wearing what looked like drug paraphernalia around her neck. Her accusers were some of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) accompanying the journey in their own canoes as a goodwill gesture.

"The Elders solved it by putting nearly 800 people, including the RCMP, into a talking circle. They taught us to first bring it out in the open," Frasier said. "Then the Elders from the woman's village began to speak about what their village symbolized. They told us how their tribe was known for taking care of each other. They said their symbol was a spoon to show that no one would ever go hungry." The accused woman was wearing a silver spoon around her neck.

The chief of the village then called out several captains from the whole group and asked them to tell how they could positively interpret the course of events.

"In the end no one hated the Mounties anymore." The RCMP also began sharing their truckloads of food with those who did not have as much. "It was the Elders who showed us how to solve the problem with dignity."

Ray Krise, skipper for the Squaxin Island canoe, agrees that the journey offers opportunities for people to learn traditional ways. "The water is like a healing point. Whatever is bothering you, you leave on the water. It becomes a common goal for the whole community," he says.

"It's about renewing our friendships every year, too. There is a feeling of being a part of a bigger family." That family is always growing, says Krise. In fact, this year Krise and wife, Cami, eagerly showed off their new three-week-old son, Talon, to their extended family during the Quinault Nation's canoe journey final potlatch ? an event four years in the making. The three-day event included singing, dancing and drumming, together with a customary giveaway and traditional games such as pole climbing and rock lifting for the youth.

"What's wonderful about this is that Native people started it themselves," says Frasier. "It's not a government program. The white man couldn't have come up with it because he didn't know anything about it."

Tribes represented in the journey were the Ditidaht, Mowachaht, Ucluelet, Tsokuke, Ehatteasat, Nanaimo, and Tsouke from Canada, and the Swinomish, Port Gamble S'Klallam, Muckleshoot, Squaxin Island, Nisqually, Suquamish, Snohomish, Lower Elwha, Puyallup, Hoh, Quileutte, Makah, Tulalip and Quinault tribes from the United States.