Northwest Canoe Tribes Gather at Quinault Nation

For more than 300 years, yesterday has been hanging over the heads of indigenous people all over North America – and it has not been kind. Manifest Destiny lies spelled out in treaties aimed at stealing people’s lands, children marched off to boarding schools to have their nativeness stripped away, not to mention marching whole peoples off their lands in a “Trail of Tears”. The United States and Canadian governments, in concert with industry and with the blind acceptance of most of the North American non-native people, have allowed this and much more to be done to the First Peoples in the name of greed, politics, fear, and religion.

You see, after suffering starvation, disease, public degradation in everything from movies, textbooks, sports team names, the job market, education, the military, alcoholism, drugs, poverty, the theft of the bodies of the ancestors by major museums, the outlawing of cultural practices that harmed nobody, especially non-natives, and the stealing of entire cultures as savage and unacceptable to other people’s notions of civility, believe it or not, the native survivors of that holocaust are coming together to help each other blossom in the 21st century.

Now that the truth is out in the light of day, let’s look at where we find ourselves today in the Northwest as relates to our Native friends, neighbors and partners. Many native-owned businesses are doing well, court cases are being won, treaty-promised lands and rights are being returned to some degree, and more native children are participating each year in the annual “Tribal Canoe Journey” gathering of canoes, communities and nations – and that’s important. The yearly gathering of as many as a 100-plus canoes from more than 60 canoe families, communities and nations is all about the return of celebration of self, community and nation, a return of culture and traditions and a better tomorrow for native youth and families, and a thank-you to the elders for their guidance, patience and wisdom.

This year, 65 canoes from more than 40 canoe families challenged themselves to paddle from as far away as Bella Bella, B.C.; the Columbia River; the south end of the Salish Sea, South Lake Union and through the locks (CWB) and more than 40 other places throughout our region. They pulled for as long as a month – often through ocean waves, winds and currents – to reach the Quinault Nation on August 1. They came to share their songs, dances and stories and to celebrate a six-day potlatch of gift-giving, culture-sharing, mutual respect, and a love of life and family. It’s strange and yet wonderful. I have been involved with the gathering of canoes for 20 years.

While he has been Artist-in-Residence at CWB, I have helped Sāādūūts as best I could to carve and potlatch (gift) seven canoes to needy communities that wanted to reinstate their village’s canoe culture. There have been young men and woman as young as two-years-old pulling in those canoes; many pullers were young families and there were elders well into their later years. Not once did I see a puller who was drinking, stoned, ready to start a fight with another human being, disrespectful to the environment, or forced to be where they were setting forth in a canoe with a paddle in hand.

That’s part of the message of this “Full Circle Journey”. A pledge, offered by Phil Red Eagle, has been taken by almost 6,000 pullers and is marked by a copper ring worn with pride by each new promise-maker: “I will not abuse myself with alcohol, drugs, and frivolous violence.”
That message is everywhere your canoe stops along the journey. Each town, village and nation now celebrates its youth and their choice to stay in school, to learn new skills, to stay healthy, and to stay free of alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and violence. Each tribe, even those that historically made war or raided each other, now pulls with each other in peace and a spirit of new days ahead. New days where the past is a learning and the future is brighter than ever. A future filled with partnerships with our neighbors and a new sense of mutual need and trust. When assessing the cause for these positive relationship changes in the Northwest, many thanks must be given to today’s efforts by every participant in the yearly gathering of Northwest canoes and nations, both native and non-native alike.

As CWB master Haida canoe carver Sāādūūts has been saying for more than 16 years: The canoe has allowed us to “Carve Cultural Connections”, and that makes all of us stronger, and better friends.

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