LUMMI NATION — As the setting sun casts warm shadows over dozens of tents scattered across the grounds of the Lummi Nation School, a casual circle of drummers sings soulfully to the slow steady rhythm.
A woman hums along as she smooths an elder’s hair. Nearby kids play in the grass, and elders lounge and shift, trying to find a shady spot to keep out of the rapidly retiring sun.
They’ve all earned this leisurely hour after journeying in canoes for weeks, from various tribes along the Salish Sea and beyond, all the way to Lummi, the site of this year’s annual tribal canoe journey, the Paddle to Lummi.
It was a brief repose after an odyssey that began as an idea 30 years ago and has grown into the reclamation of a lost tradition.
Earlier in the day, nearly 100 large canoes, bearing crews of eight to 10 “pullers” from all over the world, landed on the shores of the Lummi Stommish Grounds, where, one at a time, they asked permission from the Lummi Nation to come ashore and partake in several days of camping and sharing Coast Salish cultural heritage.
Each “canoe family” started from their own home, making predetermined stops at host tribes along the way. At each stop, they were welcomed to rest and eat, and together the visitors and hosts set out the next day, several canoes stronger.
The flotilla of canoes grew as more canoe families joined the journey. By the time they reached their destination — some having pulled for nearly 300 miles — they were ready for a multiday celebration with meals, songs, dances, stories and gifts, as well as discussions of matters important to different nations.
This post-arrival ceremony is based on a tradition known as potlatch, practiced by Coast Salish tribes for hundreds of years. The potlatch was banned in Canada from the 1850s until the 1950s, and the journeys of the late 1980s and early 1990s helped revive the potlatch tradition. Every year, the Tribal Canoe Journey is hosted by a different indigenous nation in the Pacific Northwest. This year, the Lummi Nation hosted an estimated 10,000 visitors.
Canoes have held a special place in the lives of the Coast Salish peoples for thousands of years. As the primary means of travel between coastal destinations, the canoe was a vehicle of welcome, war, fishing, trade and cultural exchange.
Now, as generations of indigenous youth who grew up participating in Tribal Canoe Journeys step into leadership roles, they are exploring and expanding upon their elders’ hopes for what the journeys can do for indigenous culture.
The origins of the canoe culture revival
Tribal Canoe Journey has grown from its origins 30 years ago as an experiment to revive indigenous maritime traditions, to its current role as part of a renaissance among indigenous peoples worldwide who are reclaiming their cultures after centuries of forced removal, forced assimilation and genocide.
“Right here in these timbers are the people,” said Ken Workman as he gestured all around him to the tall wooden walls of the University of Washington Shell House and behind him to the Willapa Spirit, a humble cedar canoe that’s the reason a group of family and friends gathered that day.
The Willapa Spirit was carved in 2009 to honor Emmett Oliver, a Quinault elder and the founder of the 1989 Paddle to Seattle, an event that ultimately sparked the revival of Coast Salish canoe culture.
Oliver’s son, the renowned artist and professor Marvin Oliver, had died the night before, on July 17.
Father and son were instrumental in the movement to revive indigenous culture in the Pacific Northwest, and to bless the Willapa Spirit was to honor them.
As family members performed a smudging ceremony to bless the canoe by circling it with burning sage and brushing it with a branch from a cedar tree, Workman explained how canoes carry the spirits of the ancestors.
“All of these burial grounds, all of the material that was us, the soft material decays and goes down into the ground like everything else, and then in the spring, the rains come and it all gets sucked up into these trees,” said Workman, a former Duwamish tribal council member and a descendant of Chief Sealth, known as Chief Seattle.
“These canoes are made out of wood. So we’re simply replicating the natural process and recognizing that Grandma and Grandpa are in the wood that’s in the canoe,” he said.
After its blessing, the Willapa Spirit was laid to rest for this canoe journey season out of respect for the Oliver family. But even without the Willapa Spirit in the water this year, Emmett Oliver’s legacy is honored every time Tribal Canoe Journeys take place.
“The saying was that we put the knowledge into the canoe and the canoe teaches.” — Philip H. Red Eagle
In the mid-1980s, as planning for Washington state’s centennial celebrations began, Emmett Oliver, the state’s supervisor of Indian Education at the time, saw an opportunity to include Native representation in the celebrations. His mind turned to canoes.
“He just thought that the Native tribes and the canoes should be part of this celebration. Because at that time, it was a lost art of canoe building. For some tribes, they hadn’t carved or built a canoe in over 50 years,” said Marylin Bard, Emmett Oliver’s daughter.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the U.S. government forcibly removed indigenous people from their ancestral lands and enforced practices to repress indigenous culture.
In the Pacific Northwest, this cultural repression took the form of violations of tribal fishing rights and of indigenous youth being forced to attend boarding schools aimed at destroying their culture, punishing them for speaking their Native languages and practicing cultural traditions. Consequently, generations of indigenous people grew up disconnected from their traditions.
By the 1980s, Native canoes no longer had a presence in the Pacific Northwest.
Oliver persuaded Gov. Booth Gardner to commission the carving of eight canoes for the ceremony, and he invited several First Nations tribes from Canada to bring their canoes and join the celebration.
On July 21, 1989, a flotilla of 40 canoes landed at Golden Gardens Park in North Seattle. The event became known as the “Paddle to Seattle.” After several days of races and celebration, Heiltsuk First Nations member Frank Brown, who had been part of initiatives to revive native maritime traditions in British Columbia in the ’80s, invited tribes to continue the tradition by paddling to his tribe’s lands in Bella Bella, B.C., in 1993.
The Paddle to Seattle inspired a generation of Native leaders and organizers to develop and refine Oliver’s idea, injecting it with ceremonies and protocols that educate participants about traditions and culture, ultimately creating the annual Tribal Canoe Journeys.
Philip H. Red Eagle and Tom Heidlbaugh were two of those inspired leaders. After participating in the 1993 Paddle to Bella Bella, Heidlbaugh, who died in 1997, told Red Eagle how moved some tribal elders were when they saw the canoes from shore.
“The elders were coming down to meet the canoes and they were crying, because they hadn’t seen canoes in 50 or 60 years used for journeying. And it had been a tradition here for a long time, hundreds of years,” said Red Eagle.
Soon Heidlbaugh and Red Eagle were organizing short journeys for indigenous youth, in which they incorporated a landing ceremony at each stop before camping and sharing traditional songs and stories.
“One of the things it was supposed to be was a healing process, the return to culture and a healing to find the way that the elders did it and the ancestors did it,” said Red Eagle. “The saying was that we put the knowledge into the canoe and the canoe teaches.”
As more tribes became involved, the Tribal Canoe Journeys became an annual tradition, and Emmett Oliver was there for every journey.
According to his daughter, Marylin Bard, it was Oliver’s wish to live to see 100 canoes land ashore in Washington.
In 2012 at the Paddle to Squaxin, Oliver watched as 103 canoes landed in Olympia. He died in 2016 at the age of 102, but the tradition he started lives on.
This year, 30 years after the Paddle to Seattle inspired the Tribal Canoe Journeys, the Paddle to Lummi brought over 90 canoes and thousands of people from all over the world. Next year’s Tribal Canoe Journey will be hosted by the Snuneymuxw First Nation on Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
Changing lives and healing from trauma
As they expanded what Oliver began, Heidlbaugh and Red Eagle strove to create a world where indigenous youth could grow up immersed in traditions. They believed it would take seven generations for the tribal journeys to make an impact on that scale.
“We know that people are feeling that hunger the way we felt that hunger — to be not just someone who’s brown and called a Native American or American Indian, but actually someone who was and is still practicing who they were,” said Red Eagle.
Shin-Gee Dunstan, now a puller for Nisqually Canoe Family, was 16 when he took part in the first youth journeys organized by Red Eagle and Heidlbaugh. Now, more than 20 years later, when Dunstan attends Tribal Canoe Journeys, he is inspired by the young people.
“It’s changing my life,” Dunstan said. “I’m stepping into the roles that our people have laid out for us. I want to get a family canoe. I want to learn the language, because I’m super [jealous] when we pulled up and the little kids are speaking the language fluently. That wasn’t even a thing when we were little!”
But Tribal Journeys are not just about cultural revival, Red Eagle said. They’re also about healing from the traumas that caused that loss of indigenous culture and tradition.
Nahaan, a Tlingit artist and member of the Naac Dancers Canoe Family, credits Marvin Oliver with helping him prioritize his culture and find healing through art.
“My culture is my life, it’s a way of life. It’s not a part-time weekend thing. It’s what I do all the time, every day,” said Nahaan. “There’s 527 years of trauma that we’re working through, and that presence has devastated our culture and our place, our environment, our generations. So we’re helping to reverse that in multiple ways — by practicing sustainable culture, by practicing honoring the water, honoring the killer whales, the fish, each other, the words and stories of our ancestors, the teachings.”
However, not all trauma can be spoken of in the past tense. A major focus of this year’s Paddle to Lummi was the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW).
Hundreds of indigenous women and girls are murdered or missing every year throughout the U.S. and Canada. A recent report from the Urban Indian Health Institute found at least 506 cases in urban areas in the U.S. Of the 71 cities surveyed in the report, Seattle had the highest number of MMIW cases.
Calling for greater awareness of MMIW, members of several canoe families wore red handprints painted across their mouths or decorated their canoes with red ribbons bearing the names of lost or missing loved ones.
A special ceremony for missing and murdered indigenous women was held on the beach after the canoes landed at Lummi. And later that evening, during protocol — the sharing of songs, dances and gifts by representatives of each tribe — a special song and dance was held in honor of MMIW.
Each dancer held a hand in front of her face to mirror the red handprint painted over her mouth. As they sang, they moved along to the slow beat of the drums, sometimes raising their hands in prayer, sometimes holding them out in front of them as if reaching for their departed loved ones:
Pray for you
I love and miss you
Sister, come home
Please God, please God
Bring her home.
“I hope it opens everyone’s eyes and I hope that all these families that do have missing loved ones or murdered loved ones, I hope they all get that support that they need, because they’re not getting help,” said dancer Nashawnee Johnson.
“It’s scary, especially for those of us that have daughters,” she said. “That’s the last thing I would want for my daughter.”
Like the generation before them that was inspired by cultural revival movements such as the Paddle to Seattle, leaders of this generation are envisioning new hopes for indigenous peoples.
“We know that people are feeling that hunger the way we felt that hunger — to be not just someone who’s brown and called a Native American or American Indian, but actually someone who was and is still practicing who they were,” — Philip H. Red Eagle.
Julian Brave NoiseCat cited the Tribal Canoe Journeys as an influence in the organization of this year’s first-ever Alcatraz Canoe Journey, which will be held in the Bay Area on Indigenous Peoples Day, Oct. 14.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island, when Native protesters occupied the abandoned federally owned island for 14 months, calling for the land to be returned to its original Native inhabitants.
NoiseCat, an Alcatraz Canoe Journey committee member who has participated in several Tribal Journeys, wanted to honor the legacy of the occupation with a tribal canoe journey.
“For community empowerment and for culture and for an intergenerational transfer …, I think [tribal journeys are] just a really powerful tool for our people,” said NoiseCat. “That experience has really been borne out in how this has really taken off in the Northwest.”
He also says the legacy of tribal journeys extends far beyond cultural revival. With indigenous peoples camping, getting out on the water, and engaging with wildlife and the land, NoiseCat believes these journeys could eventually lead to meaningful political change.
“The world is facing a biodiversity crisis of many many species going extinct or dying out, or (being) in very precarious situations. And many indigenous communities often live in the very places that protect many of the species that are most vulnerable and are key stewards of biodiversity,” he said.
“I think that that’s a very, very powerful cultural tool which can translate into real political and policy change impact.”