The tribal canoe journey: Revitalizing the coast Salish cultures

After 20 years, the Puyallup Nation hosted the Tribal Canoe Journey in the northwest for a second time.

More than 108 canoes arrived on the shore of Tacoma on July 28 and started the weeklong celebration in Puyallup of food, cultural exchanges, conversations, dances, songs, gifts, and teachings. Emmett Oliver — a respected Quinault elder at the time — revitalized the tradition in 1989 as part of the state’s centennial.

According to Chester Earl, tribal canoe committee chairman and citizen of the Puyallup Nation, “It’s a resurrection of a Coast Salish culture.”

As the host, the Puyallup Nation collaborated with other tribes to work out the landing points and routes, Earl said. At each landing point, the canoe family asks for permission to land and the host permits them and provides food, camping, singing, and dancing.

Canoe families, which are made up of tribes, regular families, or a mix of both, traveling from British Columbia, started their canoe journeys toward Puyallup as early as July 8. Those from the Oregon and along the Washington coast started July 11 and followed the maps with routes and landing points.

“When you are part of a canoe family, you can choose to “pull” (be in the water canoeing), be part of the land crew, or be a land paddler,” said Anna Bean, citizen of the Puyallup Nation and tribal council member. Bean served as a land paddler, an individual who helps the land crew and pullers from where she is on the Nation.

During the last week of the journeys — as is traditional protocol — each canoe family performs for the host and the family’s rules and traditions take precedence. At the end of each performance, they also ask permission to untie their canoe and leave the shores of the host.

“Those who have come from afar start first — such as the families from Canada — and the host end with their performance on Saturday,” Earl said. “This year, visitors from Taiwan paid a visit and performed last Saturday. With performances having no time limit, you don’t know specific times or days of performances. A list is posted as soon as you enter the protocol tent.”

“On Wednesday, protocol started at 9 a.m. and ended as late as 5 a.m.,” Bean said, running off three hours of sleep.

“If you’re here taking it in, you’re taking all of these family’s medicine,” Bean explained, referring to this year’s theme of Honoring Our Medicine. “We’re in a day of technology and it’s easier to text them and call them, and all these types of things, so it’s changed the way that we communicate with each other. The songs and dance, you don’t need any type of device for that. It’s how we’re communicating. It’s very powerful on that floor.”

S’Klallam Nation (Jamestown, Port Gamble, and Lower Elwha bands) woman singing and performing during protocol at the 2018 Tribal Canoe Journey. Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye

And it is powerful. Elders and tribal members are sitting on the floor with their shoes off. Canoe families sing and dance barefoot. The songs overpower the amount of dust flying in the tent. Toddlers sit on their parents’ lap watching and listening. People stand during certain songs. Others finish dinner in the tent 50-feet away or buy dinner from the local food trucks serving Indian Tacos, frybead, or snow cones. On the other side of the Chief Leschi Schools are vendors selling their crafts.

With all the organized chaos and laughing going on, Puyallup prepared for it. Earl said they tried to take the best parts of each journey, such as the big event tents and trailers of mobile showers and 50 sets of washers and dryers at the campground. They are known as the most “welcoming and generous” nation, according to their name.

On the first day of the celebration, their kitchen served free food to approximately 10,000 people. “The wait was two hours for the free food,” said Maggie Brave Heart, citizen of the Oglala Lakota

The kitchen lead said anyone was welcome to the free breakfast and dinner they serve the entire week. On average, they serve approximately 2,000 people for breakfast and 4,000 to 5,000 people for dinner. That doesn’t include the elders tent that is stocked with food and drinks 24/7, she said the elders are the priority.

“The preparation couldn’t be done without the help of more than 1,000 volunteers,” said Anita Oldbull, administrative manager of the Puyallup Nation and citizen of the Crow Nation. “Volunteers work in the kitchen, maintain inside and outside the tents, control traffic, cook, attend to the elders, drive the shuttle between the campground and protocol site, and more. Some volunteers also help pull in and carry the canoes on shore,” Oldbull said.

“By the time the canoes land, the land crew has set up the tents for the pullers,” Earl said. “The pullers arrive, eat, and go to sleep. The next day they wake up, pack their stuff, and leave to do the next pull. Meanwhile, the land crew takes the tent and meets the canoe at the next landing.”

Damien Tom, first-time skipper of the Moomooquim Canoe Family and citizen of the Tsartlip First Nation. Said that the skippers of all the canoe families, just before going to sleep, meet to discuss the next day’s journey including when to leave, estimated pull time, and the current.

“The skipper sits in back of the canoe guiding the canoe, reading the water, and motivating the pullers.” Tom, a 25-year-old that has been participating in the canoe journey since 2010 as a puller and has only missed two journeys in the eight-year span, said it was difficult at first but he eventually got the hang of it.

“I’d rather be a puller because a skipper is more stressful and complicated. I did it because my grandpa put me in the position.” Tom’s canoe family had two kids pulling this year who didn’t get along. Their dad and Tom’s grandpa, both on the canoe, reminded them that they can’t act like that. It upsets the balance and the canoe starts to tip.

“The canoe can feel your feelings and if you’re acting up, it starts acting up,” Tom said. “My grandma and grandpa told us that the canoe is still alive and it feels what you’re feeling.”

Unlike many pullers, Tom has an understanding employer who allows him to take off two weeks from work. He has worked with the construction company for five years. His boss understands the family aspect of it. Tom said doesn’t mind the pay cut during the canoe journey. “I do it for my grandma and grandpa.”

Nanaimo First Nation pulled for next year’s journey due to multiple deaths in their community, Earl said. They put their name in to host the 2020 Tribal Canoe Journey.

Lummi Nation will host the 2019 Tribal Canoe Journey in July.


Jourdan Bennett-Begaye is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. She is a citizen of the Diné Nation. Follow her on Twitter @jourdanbb.

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