NISQUALLY, Wash. - In 1978 the United States government passed the Indian Religious Freedom Act. This policy recognized the need to protect and preserve the inherent rights of American Indians to believe, express, and act upon their traditional ways of worshipping the Creator.
This policy change began to encourage American Indians to revive their ancient cultures. The response of the Northwest Coastal tribes was to bring back the canoe journeys.
In 1989 the Quileutes of La Push, Wash. actively challenged the other coastal tribes to respond to the new law by organizing a "Paddle" from their shores in La Push to Seattle during the state centennial celebration. A few Canadian tribes joined the journey that resulted in an invitation being issued to Washington tribes to paddle to Bella Bella, Canada in 1993.
The news spread fast through the moccasin telegraph and tribes began to eagerly participate in the paddles. The Canoe Journey occurs annually now. Drumming and singing are a large part of the "Paddle." The songs are used to welcome the canoes to shore, to give the people strength while they are paddling, and to identify themselves to other tribes. There are give-a-ways and pot latches all along the journey as the canoe families pull into different villages on the way to their destination.
WaHeLut Indian School at Frank's Landing in Washington chose to become a part of the Canoe Journey. They obtained two cedar logs to be carved into a 14-foot canoe.
Principal Jon Claymore said, "I had a dream of WaHeLut having their own canoe in the journey. We recently hired a carver from Lummi and now we are seeing that dream materialize."
The logs have to be blessed in ceremony before the actual carving begins to ensure good spirits and safe journeys. Students, parents, staff, and elders gathered around the cedar logs on June 6 to accomplish this purpose.
Lummi carver David Wilson said, "The logs are going to become a part of the canoe journeys. We're all a part of the dream Jon had. We are blessing the cedar logs today and telling them that we're not taking their life, but that we are giving them a new life. We are asking the Creator's blessing on them as we have taken the cedars from their home in the forest."
The sun shone hot as the ceremony opened with a blessing song by the students and then a prayer. The cedar logs were circled four times and then brushed with cedar boughs.
Wilson continued, "Today is a hot day and it is a small sacrifice to stand in this weather and bless these logs for transformation into a Coastal Salish-style canoe."
Four witnesses were chosen from the gathering to tell everyone of the ceremony and given Pendletons as thanks. Nisqually Elder Billy Frank, a well-known political figure in the halls of Congress was asked to speak. He said, "The cedars hold water in the land for it to grow in abundance. We used the cedar bark for our clothes, the wood to heat our lodges, and the canoes to travel on our highways, the rivers. They have always been a part of our lives, our culture. We have to educate others that live with us to tell them to protect our trees and instruct them how to manage the forests better. It is important that we stand in the hot sun today to witness this ceremony."
The canoe journeys are not races or competitions. The elders stress that the people are uniting to foster their strength and regain their cultures. Elder Frank said, "Remember we have to paddle together. One doesn't go to the left and one to the right. We have to do it all together."