SUQUAMISH, Wash. – Since the Suquamish Tribe first hosted the “Paddle to Seattle” in 1989, an event that inspired the annual Canoe Journeys, tribal leaders and community members have made dramatic changes to improve the landscape and quality of life for people living on the Port Madison Indian Reservation.
The tribe will host the 20th Annual Canoe Journey Aug. 3 – 8. Organizers expect more than 12,000 visitors, in addition to 5,000 camping enthusiasts. They plan to serve about 70,000 meals to visitors.
It all began in 1989 when members of the Heiltsuk Nation of Bella Bella, British Columbia challenged tribes participating in the Suquamish Paddle to Seattle event to paddle to their shores for the Qutawas festival in 1993.
The tribes said yes, and four years later they made good on their promise.
In 1993, 28 canoes participated in the first full-fledged canoe journey, and today, more than 100 canoes from about 90 tribes and Canadian First Nations participate in the annual sojourn. All canoes are headed toward Suquamish this year, beginning with the departure of First Nation paddlers from West Coast Vancouver Island July 19.
This treasured Northwest event honors participating tribes ancestors, who in pre-colonial days depended on the canoe for fishing, whaling and cargo transportation. “Our religion is the tradition of our ancestors,” words of wisdom from the late Chief Seattle, and the motto for this year’s event.
There are five routes that canoe families of the Northwest follow, stopping at tribal locations to rest and exchange rich traditions and customs via song, dance and food. A new canoe then joins the canoeing caravan, growing in size at each stop.
When the canoes arrive at Suquamish this year, paddlers from years past should immediately notice the new structure located near the waterfront.
The tribe debuted the more than 13,000-square-foot community building, House of Awakened Culture, in March. This sacred place, also known to many Natives as a longhouse, will serve as a central gathering place during the Canoe Journeys. Adjacent to the community house, a new 526-foot dock, and connecting 1,200-square-foot float, replaced the dilapidated Mosquito Fleet Ferry Dock.
Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman refers to the rapid growth as “cultural resurgence” for a tribe nearly wiped out by white settlers and forced assimilation in the early 20th century. With the exception of the resort/casino, all of the capital improvement projects are spearheaded by the Suquamish Foundation and funded by a combination of private donors and tribal revenue.
There are numerous projects completed, including an early learning center. A new museum is in the works along with a slew of smaller projects.
Located a few miles up the road from the community house, the Clearwater Casino Resort has become a popular gaming destination for Kitsap Peninsula locals. The location has changed dramatically since its humble beginnings in 1992, transforming from a bingo establishment housed in a tent into a casino and resort nestled on the Puget Sound waterfront.
The tribe opened the 22,500-square-foot casino featuring more than 30 table games and 1,300 slot machines, a poker room and keno lounge in 2003. It also houses a buffet, steakhouse and snack bar that serves frybread, along with an entertainment venue and convention center.
Public Relations Officer April Leigh refers to Clearwater as a “boutique resort,” the new hotel completed in 2006, has 85 rooms.
All rooms are booked during Canoe Journey week, including three rental houses. While there is plenty to do at the casino, Leigh is careful to point out that the journey is separate from the gaming and no special promotions are being offered at the casino in celebration of the event. The Canoe Journey is an alcohol and drug free event.
“I found that a lot people don’t truly understand what the Canoe Journeys are all about outside the Pacific Northwest,” she said. “They have an idea, but they wouldn’t understand why a promotion wouldn’t be tied to it.”