SALISH SEA — Dozens of tents lined the beach Sunday in Lummi Nation, the smell of saltwater and seaweed wafting off the waves. Members of Coast Salish tribes roused from their sleeping bags around 9 a.m.
Somewhere deep in the camp, a steady drumbeat sounded.
This week, hundreds of Native Americans from all around the Pacific Northwest — representing the Lummi, Suquamish, Tulalip tribes and many more — gathered for their first Canoe Journey since 2019. The pandemic paused the tradition.
Each canoe holds roughly eight to 16 people, with a skipper to guide them.
Tribal members drove days to be here. Some came from Alaska and Oregon. Together, the canoe families planned to “pull,” or paddle, over a hundred miles from the Lummi Reservation to Muckleshoot in seven days. Stops planned on this year’s journey were the Samish, Swinomish, Tulalip, Suquamish reservations, finally ending at Alki Beach in Seattle, followed by a five-day powwow at Muckleshoot. An estimated 112 canoes were expected to make the final landing.
Over and over, Native Americans from different nations repeated the same message: It’s a journey about community, identity and purpose.
“It’s empowering,” said Antone George, a tribal elder with Lummi and Tulalip heritage. “We were so close to being stripped of everything. Everything. But to see our youth, here, they’re carrying our traditions on.”
Rhythm of the journey
Across the Lummi campsite, no one sat still. A woman shucked corn in the kitchen tent. A man soaked strips of cedar in water, preparing to weave the paper-thin strands into a cedar hat for the next day’s journey. Two girls sat in the grass, braiding each other’s hair. Children ran barefoot into the sea.
Paddlers awaited the arrival of dozens of other canoes heading from Canada and elsewhere. They were expected to arrive at 10 a.m. Then noon. And then 1 p.m.
At 2 p.m. Sunday, the first of the late arrivals pulled in, running aground. One of the paddlers rose. All other voices quieted. The speaker announced their peaceful arrival in a Native language, greeted their host and asked permission to come ashore.
This arrival ceremony is part of “protocol,” a series of rules for every stop along the way. Afterward, the tribes join one another for dinner and a ceremony that lasts hours, donning regalia, dancing and singing.
At 3:30 a.m., they rose again.
Swiftly they took down their tents, ate breakfast and packed. By 5 a.m., the families set off, pushing their many-colored canoes — each carved and painted with traditional Indigenous images, unique to each canoe family — into Puget Sound. For the next eight to 12 hours, paddlers pull across the Salish Sea to their next host.
‘For a reason’
On the third day, the canoes landed on the shores of Tulalip Bay. Unlike the other days, however, they didn’t have an early alarm awaiting them. Thursday was for rest and fun — a time to recharge before a long 28-mile pull to Suquamish, across the water in Kitsap County, near the gravesite of Chief Sealth, the namesake of Seattle.
At Tulalip, children jumped in bouncy castles while adults sold smoked salmon and jewelry. People mingled in the gathering hall, a massive cedar-paneled room with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the bay.
From 100 yards away, the chorus of voices and the drumbeat reverberated. The hall teemed with movement.
Men and women gathered at the front to sing, Dancers spilled into the center of the room. Deer hooves rattled from bands around their ankles and tiny wooden paddles slapped against their beaded jackets. Hands raised and backs bent, the dancers moved as one — a visible heartbeat in the center of the hall.
Canoe family after canoe family, hundreds performed. Onlookers gathered, downing plates of macaroni and cheese and ribs. The festivities stretched well past midnight.
George pointed toward the regalia, twirling on the dancers’ bodies.
“Everything we wear is for a reason — it’s for protection,” George said. “And it’s our inherent right to wear what we have. … And we can’t follow a spiritual path without the spirits following us.”
Atop woven cedar hats, feather spinners ward off negativity. The painted red lines across their faces reveal themselves to their ancestors, George explained.
“We’re told that we put this protection on because at one of these events one of our ancestors may come and look us in the face and wonder who we are,” he said. “Now, they can recognize us.”
The Canoe Journey creates space for community and expression. It’s a time for members to voice concerns they have within their nations.
“Get drugs off the rez,” read one man’s shirt. A painted sign condemned the construction of oil pipelines on reservations. Voices advocated to protect children from abuse that goes on behind closed doors, brought on by centuries of genocide and cultural suppression.
Mabel Nahanee, a member of Squamish Nation in Canada, was crowned the journey’s Pow Wow Princess. She said the trip gives kids a chance to get away from the drugs and alcohol so readily available on reservations. The journey, she said, allows them to reconnect with their true identities.
In the past 34 years, tribes have honed it to a science. Each tribe has two teams: a land crew and a canoe crew. The land crew is in charge of supplies — tents, food, kitchen supplies, personal belongings and first aid — as the canoe crew pulls across the Salish Sea.
The skipper’s role is paramount, tracking the tides, understanding the back eddies and preparing for changes in wind. They’re responsible for the lives of those in their canoe, and for the canoe itself. To call a canoe a “boat” is a grave offense and requires a debt to be paid — usually in the form of a dunk in the chilly waters.
Tlingit member Doug Chilton is one of the skippers for One People Canoe Society. He drove down with his family for three days to join the journey.
“Up in Alaska, we did canoe racing, but that bred competition and became divisive,” Chilton said. “We love what they’re doing down here, coming together. Talk about hook, line and sinker — I was in.”
Around Chilton’s neck hung a long leather band with a brass hoop, proof of his commitment to the annual canoe journey. Each bead, he explained, marks another year. The hoop itself is special — it can only be worn by those who hand-carve canoes.
Ty Juvinel, of Tulalip, was putting his woodworking skills to use.
“Just today, two paddles broke,” Juvinel said. “I’ve been carving new ones for them.”
Tulalip’s Andrew Gobin closed out the night Thursday with a prayer in Lushootseed.
“Elders, we thank you. For practicing the old teaching of staying until it’s done,” Gobin said, as the final drum beats faded out past midnight. “We thank you all and have a safe journey tomorrow out on the sea.”
On Friday morning, the beat of the drums sounded yet again. Slowly, deftly, canoes met the water of Tulalip Bay.
At 5 a.m., lavender hues flickered across the waves. Families waded through knee-deep soft muck to carry their canoes into the sea. On the water, Chilton wore his cedar hat. He cracked jokes constantly, a big smile on his face. His voice called out above the splashing.
“Paddles up, paddles out,” he shouted. “Pull! Pull!”
They hoped to reach Suquamish in about 12 hours. And by 4 p.m., in the heat of a sunny day, they still had a ways ago.
Their group of eight paddling in sync, within earshot of a couple other canoes, they sang: for morale, for the orcas, for those who never got a proper burial, for their ancestors.