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Fifth Annual Northwest Indian Storytelling Festival celebrates Tribal Canoe Journey

PORTLAND, Ore. – Canoe travel and paddling traditions have been an important part of Northwest tribal life for thousands of years, but had almost disappeared from many contemporary communities until the Tribal Canoe Journey events began.

Officially launched in 1993, the Tribal Canoe Journeys have created and returned many stories that are bringing people together not only with relatives in the Northwest region but also with distant communities from Hawaii to Alaska.

Traditional stories, songs and ceremony of the canoe journey open ancient contexts, and present-day narratives and new experiences become bridges to the understandings of ancestors, strengthening identity and building healthy communities.

“We see the world through stories and understand our place and our people’s place in the world. Without the mythic, there is no sense of place in the world,” said traditional elder Roger Fernandes, Lower Elwha Klallam, who has sought out stories from elders, books and other archives for decades. “The glaring lack of access to traditional stories has caused identity and personal confusion.”

Fernandes and others will be sharing traditions and stories, with a focus on the Northwest Tribal Canoe Journeys, at the 5th Annual Northwest Indian Storytelling Festival at Lewis and Clark College, the evenings of Nov. 12 – 13, with an emerging storyteller’s workshop and matinee Nov. 13 – 14 open to Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and First Nations people.

From the first “Paddle to Seattle” of nine canoes in 1998 to this year’s 2010 Journey hosted by the Makah Nation in July, attendance has grown to more than 10,000 people with more than 90 canoes welcomed by coastal tribes and other communities as they made their way to the host nation.

“The first time, I went down to the beach I was by myself singing on the beach – singing by myself because nobody knew the songs or knew what to do. But I was born and raised here so I knew what our people did – greet them, have the fire, prepare the food and welcome them in the proper way,” said traditional elder Elaine Grinnell, whose Jamestown S’Klallam community has just had its honoring dinner.

In July, the inland sea of the Puget Sound, Georgia Strait and Strait of Juan de Fuca – which Fernandes calls, “Whulje” (the center of the world) – received an additional name, the Salish Sea, to honor the connections of all the salt water’s relations, which transcend the artificial boundaries that have fragmented families as well as conceptions of ecosystems.

Grinnell also worked on the safety boat for the journeys, having had plenty of emergency experience after fishing commercially with her husband for 10 years.

“People don’t understand the force of the water.”

She recounted how they were always alert for the black fish.

“They really look at you. If you get in the mist of a killer whale, it means good luck for the rest of your life. There are stories of how they guided people back and forth.”

Fernandes talked of a cultural capsizing, in the Twana language, “Spelatch.

“This is a long journey. It doesn’t happen overnight. People collected stories, but didn’t tell them. They were trapped in books. They need the moisture of our breath – that gives them power.”

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The ancient ocean trading routes from California to locations including Canada, Washington, Hawaii and Easter Island will also be connecting to the Northwest with storytellers traveling to Lewis and Clark from the California Indian Storytelling Association.

“We have been on a journey for a while, a cultural exchange with Polynesian, Maori, Haida and the State of Washington for the last three or four years,” said Chumash traditional elder Georgiana Sanchez, who will be attending.

Sanchez outlined some cultural connections such as the similarity of the ceremonial fishhooks the Chumash pullers and some Chumash elders wear to those of the Polynesians and the similarities of the tomol (plank canoe) to the canoes of Easter Island.

“We have always learned from one another, not to show who did what first. This is the revival of the brotherhood of the tomol.”

The Elye’wun (pronounced “El-E-ah-woon,” meaning “swordfish”) Chumash tomol made its first journey to Limuw, now known as Santa Cruz Island, in 2001 with a Maori paddle lashed to the bow. There was a Chumash gathering at the site of the old village, Swaxil, the weekend after the Twin Towers went down.

Sanchez said that despite the apparent hardness of the times, the revitalization of traditions is a powerful undercurrent.

“Even with our languages being called ‘dead,’ we know they are sleeping.”

Storytellers from Alaska will also be attending the festival.

Traditional songs will be shared at the festival by the Grande Ronde/Chinook Canoe Family.

Bobby Mercier skippered one of the three canoes supported by a ground crew of 70 this year to Neah Bay for the 32 Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde. This year they built a 30-foot ocean canoe.

He said the Tribal Canoe Journey is one of the biggest prevention programs on the Northwest coast, especially for inner city and at-risk youth.

Some of the canoe songs are very old, which he collected from elders, and some were made during the paddling. His favorite is the Blessing Song, which he wrote five years ago while carving at the dinner table, holding his infant son.

“We’re going up there do to some singing.”

Sponsors include Lewis and Clark College’s Indigenous Ways of Knowing Program and Center for Community Engagement, and Wisdom of the Elders, Inc. A map to Lewis and Clark College and campus location can be found online. For more information on the festival and emerging storytellers workshop for tribal community members, contact Emily Olson at or call (503) 775-4014.