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It was 20 years ago today. …

SAN JUAN ISLAND, Wash. – Since its inception in 1989, participation in the Canoe Journey each July and August has grown from nine canoes to more than 100.

The Canoe Journey is a celebration of Northwest Coast Native culture and tradition, a revival of canoe travel upon ancestral waters. It also reinstates the presence of the region’s First Peoples.

Coast Salish Day July 18 in Bellingham – historically Lummi territory – will celebrate that revival as well as salute the 20th anniversary of the journey.

The third annual Coast Salish Day – formerly Canoe Journey Day – will be held 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Boulevard Park in Bellingham’s Fairhaven district. The first Coast Salish Day was held in 2007; at that event, a proclamation signed by Whatcom County’s mayors and county administrator was read recognizing the Coast Salish peoples as “the First Inhabitants of this Land and these Waters.”

The 2007 event was organized by a committee of local volunteers; this year it’s co-sponsored by the Lummi Indian Nation.

As this year’s event takes place, the Canoe Journey will have begun and canoes from the region’s northernmost points will be headed for Suquamish and host nations in between. Canoes from all nations are scheduled to arrive at Suquamish Aug. 3 for five days of celebration and sharing.

At Coast Salish Day, participants can witness some of the celebration and protocols that take place along the journey route.

At 11:15 a.m., the colors will be presented by military veterans from Lummi and Nooksack. The West Shore canoe family from Lummi will drum and present honoring songs.

At 11:30, Marylin Bard will tell the history of the Canoe Journey. Her father, Emmett Oliver, a Quinault elder, organized the 1989 Canoe Journey – called the Paddle to Seattle. His nephew, Whatcom County Treasurer Steve Oliver, has a new canoe and canoe family and is participating for the first time in the journey.

At 11:45, the 2007 proclamation will be read. At noon, canoes from Lummi, Nooksack, Samish and Swinomish are scheduled to arrive. Canoe captains, speaking in their ancestral languages, will ask permission to come ashore. Later, each canoe family will share their exclusive songs and dances.

The day’s activities include Native art, food vendors, information booths, slahal (bone game) demonstrations and storytelling. For a donation, participants can pull in a canoe; proceeds will help defray the canoe families’ travel costs.

“This is the third annual event to honor the first inhabitants of this land and these waters,” said Beth Brownstein, a coordinator of the event. “It is an opportunity to bring our communities together to learn, share, honor one another and respect this land and these waters.”

Whatcom County Executive Pete Kremen, the county’s top elected official, said Coast Salish traditions remind residents “how fortunate we all are to live on a land filled with such beauty, hope and history.

“These waters provide opportunity for families, tribes and communities to be brought together to honor one another, and express hope for the continued flourishing of the First People’s cultures. … All of our Coast Salish tribes care deeply about passing on these traditions and their legacies to their children. And what I have continued to see throughout my experience is that these are deep traditions and rich legacies. We are not just here to celebrate the canoes that land on this coast today, but those that have landed for centuries before and will land here for centuries to come.”

Kremen said Coast Salish peoples’ honoring of ancestors and traditions “helps all of us hang onto a vision, a greater understanding, and a legacy – a legacy we carry with us tomorrow and beyond.”

Ted Solomon, a Lummi councilman and language program director, said that until 2007 Coast Salish people had never been formally recognized as “the first inhabitants of these waters and this land.”

He said Coast Salish Day has helped break down barriers and build understanding between cultures – and neighbors.

Solomon remembered speaking at a college and taking questions afterward. Some asked if non-Native people were allowed to go onto the reservation, which they are. Others had questions about the hows and whys of Lummi culture and traditions.

Because of events like Coast Salish Day and the Canoe Journey, “they are understanding more. We have dealt with a lot of questions, but people get to experience some of those things first-hand. No explanation is needed because they’ve experienced it.”

Shuttle service will be available to and from parking areas near Boulevard Park on Coast Salish Day. For more information, call (360) 738-8899, or e-mail bethbrownf@aol.com.

Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at rmwalker@rockisland.com.

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