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Canoe Journey’s sphere of influence growing

SWINOMISH, Wash. – The first modern Canoe Journey took place seven years before Aiden Baker was born.

But July 26, as he stood confidently in the Squamish Nation canoe, and in the language of his ancestors, asked permission for his canoe family to come ashore, he symbolized the hopes of the Canoe Journey’s founders: The perpetuation of the culture.

On shore, the adults from Lummi Nation were impressed.

“I really want to thank you for using your language,” was the response from the shore. “You know, it’s an honor to learn the language, and someone so young, able to stand up and express yourself. … I want to thank you for using the language today. You have the permission of Lummi Nation to come ashore, si’am. Hy’shqa, si’am.”

View images and listen to audio captured by Molly Neely-Walker during the Tribal Canoe Journeys landing at Lummi Nation’s shores July 26, 2009. View images captured by Chris Stearns during the Tribal Canoe Journey landing at Suquamish on Aug. 3, 2009.

The scene was replayed at each visit to each territory en route to Suquamish, the final host of this year’s journey. At Birch Bay, a little girl crawled into a canoe, picked up a paddle and, alone, pretended to pull. At Samish, Ta’kaiya Blaney, 7, sang “Amazing Grace” in her Sliammon language, with a confident and lovely voice that had the crowd spellbound. At evening protocols, mothers carried babies as they danced to ancient songs sung in ancient languages.

“It’s beautiful and that was the whole purpose of it in the first place,” said Linda Day, a Swinomish cultural educator who worked on the first Canoe Journey 20 years ago.

“The paddle brings back everything in our culture. It brings back the carving of the canoes from the cedar trees, the carving of the paddles. … It brings back (knowledge) of navigation, the tides, the winds, learning everything about the water, learning to respect it again, learning where all of the spiritual sites are along the way as they travel.”

She remembered the first time the Canoe Journey stopped at Swinomish’s shores. “Our culture, we had lost it for so many years. … When we brought (canoe travel) back, the elders had tears in their eyes. They didn’t think that they would ever see this again before they died.”

Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman said the Canoe Journey has been “a powerful experience.”

The first journey “planted a lot of seeds. We didn’t know if they would grow slowly or fast, or what kind of results we would see.”

Since that first journey, he has watched an increasing number of young people pull in canoes, learn their languages and songs, and participate in traditional activities. Most young people make commitments to stay away from alcohol, drugs and tobacco so they can be members of canoe families. “The Canoe Journey has been vital. Those seeds would never have grown as fast or successfully in such a pure way without the journey.”

This journey was the 20th anniversary of the first modern journey, when Emmett Oliver, a Quinault educator, organized the Paddle to Seattle for the state’s centennial celebration. In 1989, nine canoes participated. This year, more than 100 canoes from First Nations in Washington and British Columbia traveled the ancestral waters to Suquamish, near Seattle, arriving Aug. 3.

The Canoe Journey has attracted the attention of canoe cultures around the world. On the Swinomish canoe this year are pullers from Peru and the Philippines. On the Squamish Nation canoes are pullers from Hawaii and Maori.

Charlie Kanehailua, Native Hawaiian, told of the similarities between the Northwest and Hawaiian canoe cultures.

Photo by Molly Neely-Walker Aiden Baker, 13, of Squamish greeted Lummi Nation representatives in the Squamish language, and asked permission for his canoe family to come ashore.

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“It’s really spiritual. We have similarities in the way we pray, the way we celebrate with music, songs and dances, (in) recognizing our ancestors and showing appreciation for the past so we can move forward, and learning also from the past.

“When we do paddle out in our waters, we pray. Whenever we see a sea creature or bird, it’s sort of an encounter, the ancestors coming and visiting. We give our appreciation and say thank you (and) show appreciation for the environment.”

The journey’s sphere of influence in science has grown as well. For the second year, five canoes are towing probes that collect water quality data every 10 seconds.

Coast Salish leaders and the U.S. Geological Survey hope the data collection will help identify signs of climate change, impacts from development, and changes in the levels and types of nutrients and pollutants washing into the sea. That information could help them solve such mysteries as the loss of eelgrass, which provides habitat for fish on which salmon prey, as well as population declines of orcas, salmon, herring and sea birds.

Pulling on the Swinomish canoe when it landed at Lummi Nation were John Tubbs, deputy assistant secretary of the Interior; and Bob Doyle, USGS deputy director.

The drama of human experience has played out on the journey as well.

On July 25 at Birch Bay in Nooksack territory, the Sliammon canoe family pulled its canoe from the water in honor of a relative who had passed away at home. The family will not rejoin the journey until after the funeral and interment.

News of the passing seemed to be underscored by a storm that rolled in over Birch Bay, replacing sunny skies and 80-degree temperatures with thunder, lightning and rain.

“I think we’re being blessed by Mother Nature here,” said Leslie Eastwood, general manager of the Samish Indian Nation.

“She’s blessing us, washing away some of the tears, washing away anything that’s negative. That’s what I’ve heard, when it rains like this, it washes it all away. Any bad feelings and any sadness is going to be leaving us now on this journey.”

Eastwood expressed sympathy to the Sliammon canoe family.

“To the people who are in sorrow here today, we understand. Three years ago, the day canoes were leaving our ground, we lost one of our elders and we kept our canoes home until he was in the ground and then joined people at Muckleshoot, so we know what that’s like. Our hearts go out to all those people that are grieving today.”

Eastwood said she understood the difficult decision to take the canoe out of the water.

“We understand those people who have mixed feelings about that. … Some of our teachings, your work plan needs to go on. Some of our teachings, you need to stay home. We hear a lot of different things and we just have to listen. That’s hard sometimes and that’s part of what happens on the journey.”

The next day, the skies were clear and the air warm, and the Canoe Journey continued.

Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island. Wash. Contact him at