A new generation of Indigenous leaders is emerging as was evident at the 2019 Canoe Journey, the annual gathering of Indigenous nations from the Pacific Northwest and Canada.
These children are the Canoe Journey Generation, born in the years since the 1989 Paddle to Seattle, the Washington state centennial celebration event that spawned this annual gathering of Indigenous peoples. As the Canoe Journey has grown as a forum for defending sovereignty, protecting the environment and sharing their cultures with an unknowing world, the young ones have witnessed it and been emboldened by it.
And now, before a crowd of thousands gathered July 24 on the shores of the Lummi Nation — this year’s Canoe Journey host — a young Arnold Thomas stood in the Ahousaht First Nation canoe, his voice strongly sending forth a song of welcome.
Jayla Moon, 12, stood and lifted her hand in welcome from the Port Gamble S’Klallam canoe, Kloomachin, which her late great-grandfather skippered in the Paddle to Seattle years before she was born.
Young pullers from several canoes wore a red-painted handprint covering their mouths to call for justice for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women.
Ahousaht children sang a prayer song in their language in Lummi Nation’s Wex’Liem Community Building during protocol, when representatives of each Indigenous nation share their songs and dances.
These scenes would be repeated in the following days during the 2019 Canoe Journey July 24-28: Young people speaking their languages, singing their songs and dancing their dances – women and girls with hand-carved rattles made of alder or cedar, and wearing cedar hats and embroidered shawls with goat wool fringes; men and boys drumming with handmade deer or elk hide drums and wearing cedar vests, hats, and headbands.
These young people are the ones who will carry on the work, who will teach the world about ways of life that have sustained their peoples since the beginning of time.
Troy Olsen, Lummi, lifted his hands in thanks and drummed in welcome as canoe families asked for permission to land on Lummi’s shores. He called the Canoe Journey a celebration of resilience and sovereignty.
“To hear our youth speaking the language, it’s nothing short of a miracle — nothing more, nothing less,” he said.
“As many canoes have come ashore as there were at the time of the signing of the Point Elliott Treaty [in 1855]. What’s different, 160 years later, is we are bringing back our elders, our youth, our songs, our dances and our potlatch for each and every person here to be a part of. And they will take away that it’s not about [self], it’s about coming together in a good way, giving our hy’shqas [thanks] to the Creator for the gifts we have been given. After 160 years of oppression, the government didn’t kill the culture. The government didn’t kill the language.”
Fulfilling a dream
The annual Canoe Journey is a gathering of Indigenous nations from the Pacific Northwest and Canada that has, over the years, attracted the involvement of Native Nation; this year’s host is the Lummi Nation, a Coast Salish nation whose reservation is located near Bellingham, Washington. The event includes round-the-clock sharing of songs, dances and gifts by representatives of each nation and concludes with the calling of witnesses and gifting by the host nation. This follows the tradition of the potlatch, which historically was a form of wealth redistribution.
To many participants, the coming of age of the Canoe Journey generation is a fulfillment of a dream of Emmett Oliver, the late Quinault educator who organized the Paddle to Seattle.
Standing in the Kloomachin canoe, Dennis Jones told the crowd that his mother had found a letter from Oliver dated Sept. 5, 1989. “In that letter, he talks about the significance of this journey and how do we keep it going,” Jones said. “In the letter, he is dreaming of a bigger magnitude in the future, and that magnitude we all witness today -- from eight to 12 canoes [in the first Journey] to over 100 landings today. In the letter, he also talks about being drug and alcohol-free, and how drugs and alcohol is not the Indian way.”
Jones said Oliver wanted the letter shared. “I have a copy of this letter for every family to remind themselves what Emmett’s dream was and why we are here today.”
Paddle to Lummi Nation attracted so many canoes from the U.S. Canada, and the Pacific that Fredrick Lane, a Lummi Nation councilman and Canoe Journey planning committee member, said he stopped counting. The general consensus is more than 100. As for the number of guests, Lane said 8,000 dinners were served the first night.
Indigenous representatives that traveled the farthest to participate in Paddle to Lummi: Native Hawai’ians, Maori from New Zealand, Papuan from New Guinea, and Shinnecock Tribe of Long Island, New York.
All rooms at the Lummi Nation’s Silver Reef Casino Hotel were booked. Canoe families camped in forested areas and close to the beach near the landing site. Lummi Transit provided free shuttle service from parking areas to the festivities. The Lummi Fitness Center was open to all Paddle to Lummi guests. First aid tents were set up in the area. Youth activities included a scavenger hunt on the Lummi Nation School football field and a teen dance and blacklight party with DJ Fresh Boogie in the Lummi Youth Wellness Gym.
‘You do not fight this fight alone’
The 2019 Canoe Journey brought together Indigenous peoples from throughout the U.S. Canada, and the Pacific – each a distinct culture, yet all unified in purpose: defending sovereignty, protecting the environment and all living things it sustains, and insisting on justice for murdered and missing Indigenous women.
A representative of the Papuan people of New Guinea told the crowds during the landing, “You do not fight this fight alone.
“We are all fighting together to reach [our] destiny,” he said. “We are humbled to stand before you and be a part of this great family.” He said the Papuan people and other Indigenous peoples are motivated by love, and “without that love, I don’t think we would all make it here. We have love for what we have, what has been created for us. We are one.”
The Papuan delegation stood as witnesses July 27 as two Lummi Nation citizens, Tah-mas (Ellie Kinley) and Squil-le-he-le (Raynell Morris) announced their intent to sue Miami Seaquarium for the repatriation of an orca captured in the Salish Sea in 1970. The orca, known as Lolita and Tokitae, has been given the name Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut by the Lummi Nation.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) gives legal grounds for the lawsuit, according to the plaintiffs.
“Lummi Nation never gave consent to, or was notified of, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s violent capture from Lummi territory in 1970,” advance notice of the lawsuit stated. “The qwe’lhol’mechen (orca relation) has been held captive ever since. Miami Seaquarium has repeatedly refused Lummi’s requests for a meeting and calls for Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s release and repatriation.”
Canoe Journey generation
Photos by Richard Walker
Preparation for the future
While the Canoe Journey generally takes place in July, preparing for the Journey is year-round. Canoe families practice songs and dances that they will share on the protocol floor, and new songs are introduced. Participants develop their language skills. New skippers begin training and canoe pullers begin practicing in spring. Gift making and regalia making take place all year.
“The Canoe Journey brought our canoes back to the water. That was the original goal,” said Cathy Ballew, a Lummi Nation citizen who was instrumental in bringing the Papuan delegation here for the 2019 Journey. “It’s also brought back the regalia, the songs, and introduced new songs. A majority of young people are learning about our way of life, practicing the lifestyle, learning the language, wearing regalia. It’s bringing back the old way of life.”
The Snuneymuxw First Nation will host the 2020 Canoe Journey in Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Suquamish Tribe Chairman Leonard Forsman announced during the landings that his nation would host in 2024.
Richard Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is a correspondent reporting from Anacortes, Washington. He has covered the Canoe Journey since 2004 for Indian Country Today.