For two weeks, the Sobah-li-Ali Canoe Family braved fog, rough waters and cold temperatures as they traveled down the Stillaguamish River, then to the Pacific Ocean. They didn’t stop, they said, because they had taken an oath.
On Thursday, the canoe family from the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe reached its destination: Point Grenville on the Quinault Indian Reservation, where they joined an estimated 12,000 visitors who had come to see the Paddle to Quinault, the annual landing of canoes.
An intertribal event, the landing this year is drawing tribes from the U.S., Canada and New Zealand.
“It’s spiritual,” said Kemo Welborn, of Darrington, Snohomish County, after his canoe family landed. “You learn unity and respect for Mother Nature.”
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The Sauk-Suiattle group was one of 70 canoes carrying members representing 100 tribes.
For each group, the journey starts in different places throughout Northwest Washington and Canada, but they all end at a designated tribal area, which changes every year.
The Quinaults last hosted it in 2002.
Quinault organizers estimated that along with those who came to see Thursday’s landing, some 10,000 visitors a day would attend celebrations that conclude on Tuesday.
The event started with Quinault tribal member Emmet Oliver, who organized the Paddle to Seattle in 1989 to coincide with the Washington State Centennial Celebration. That year, nine canoes traveled to Seattle.
It became an annual event in 1993.
“This is a resurgence of our culture and our tradition,” said Larry Ralston, Quinault treasurer. “Under U.S. treaties, these events were banned. We’re bringing this back.”
The canoe groups leave from various areas and stay at different hosting sites each night.
The hosts perform songs and dances for the guests, an important aspect of the event, said Dario de Pasquale, who traveled with a canoe from the Snohomish Tribe.
“Each night we would get a different welcome, and with the songs and the dances, it was just magical,” said de Pasquale, who is originally from Sicily.
Each canoe group is known as a canoe family, and each tribal journey event is like a family reunion, Ralston said.
“You see people and say, ‘This person was my grandfather,’ and they say ‘Oh, he was my great-great uncle.’ We get to reconnect,” he said on the beach as boats made their landing.
During the landing, a member of each canoe family announced its tribal affiliation and asked permission from the Quinault Nation to land.
“On behalf of our nation, come ashore, come ashore,” a Quinault Nation representative responded.
The theme of Paddle to Quinault is “Honoring Our Warriors,” and the canoe groups also announced if a veteran was traveling with them.
The patriotism of Indian tribes is often overlooked, Ralston said.
“We want everybody to know about and honor our Indian veterans,” Ralston said.
One of the members of the Sobah-li-Ali Canoe Family is a military veteran, Welborn said. “Sixty-five years old and he’s still pulling.”
Tribal volunteers help in every aspect of the event, including shuttling elders to different locations and making sure the camping area is clean, according to Maranda James, a Quinault volunteer.
“This is important, especially for honoring our warriors,” James said.
The rest of the week will consist of each tribe sharing traditional songs and dance, with the Quinault Nation performing Saturday.
After landing, Welborn and fellow puller Ramo Misanes stood by their canoe and scarfed down sandwiches.
They were tired, they said, but felt good and plan to take part in the event again next year.
“We’ll be here,” Welborn said. “We took an oath.”
Paige Cornwell: 206-464-2517 or firstname.lastname@example.org