Indian Canoe Journey makes its way into South Sound
Matt Ballew, the designated representative of the Lummi Nation, left his fellow paddlers in the canoe Wednesday afternoon and waded ashore on the Puyallup Tribe’s traditional territory near Dash Point.
Head down and respectful, Ballew listened to the Puyallups’ formal welcome.
Then, his voice shaking with emotion, Ballew asked for a favor. He wanted to shake the hand of every one of the 15 Puyallup children who sang the centuries-old welcome song.
“A while back our language and our songs were taken away from a lot of nations all along the coast,” Ballew said afterward. “It’s good to see kids like that singing. It’s a good thing because a lot of it was lost.”
The annual Northwest Coast Indian Canoe Journey, which was set to arrive in Tacoma on Thursday and ends with a six-day celebration at the Squaxin Island Reservation next week, is, on the surface at least, about long-distance canoe paddling.
More than 100 traditional cedar canoes from tribes as far away as Alaska have joined for the marathon journey, hop scotching from tribe to tribe along the way. The duration of the daily paddles varies, but most last several hours and take place in all kinds of weather. Wednesday’s paddle, from Seattle’s Alki Beach to Dash Point, took four to five hours.
But organizers and paddlers say the canoeing merely skims the surface of the event’s true significance. It’s really about healing, respect, hospitality, teamwork and honor, they say.
“It’s about the revitalization of our traditional ways, for the kids in particular,” said David Bean, a member of the Puyallup Tribal Council. “They’re learning things that have passed down for generations.”
Connie McCloud, who for 16 years has headed the Puyallup Tribe’s canoe program, said the canoe journeys also are about keeping kids away from substance abuse and violence.
“”We really are a drug and alcohol prevention program,” McCloud said. “We’re violence-free, and we use talking circles to help solve problems.”
The Puyallups’ canoeing program is also one of the only ones that also are tobacco-free, McCloud said.
“The idea is to offer hope,” McCloud said, “because for a lot of our kids, there is no hope.”
The tribal boats, all made of cedar and constructed in traditional ways, carry up to 15 people. The trick to smooth, efficient sailing is paddling in precise rhythm, McCloud said, which is a metaphor for a satisfying life.
“We’re not canoeing,” she said. “We’re pulling together.”
Tribal Journeys began in 1989, timed to coincide with Washington’s centennial celebration. Nine canoes participated in the “Paddle to Seattle” that year, and in 1993, 23 canoes participated in a “Paddle to Bella Bella” in British Columbia.
Since 1993, the tribal journeys have been held annually, with various tribes serving as hosts.
On Wednesday evening, the Puyallup Tribe treated all the canoe families – along with several hundred volunteers and support crews – to a dinner with traditional Native American foods, including alder smoked salmon, venison, elk, geoduck and buffalo, contributed by the Yakama Nation.
After they leave Puyallup territory, the canoe families will head for Squaxin Island. After being greeted there, they’ll head for an official landing at Olympia, then back to Squaxin for a week of traditional celebration, ceremony and potlatch at Kamilche.
The canoe families are expected to land at the Port of Olympia’s NorthPoint area about 1 p.m. Sunday.
The public is invited to watch the welcoming landing ceremony, but congestion is expected.
Access will be restricted along the one-mile section of Marine Drive leading to the landing site.
Only buses, canoe family trailers and patrons of Anthony’s Hearthfire Grill, KGY Radio and Swantown Marina will be allowed to drive and park in that area.
Sidewalks and a walking trail extend the entire distance along Marine Drive to the landing site. Residents are encouraged to bike, walk or take the bus.