Tribal canoes converge on Tacoma for songs, stories and renewal of culture

More than 120 tribal canoes rounded Browns Point on Saturday and pointed their bows at the mouth of Tacoma’s Hylebos Waterway.

Waiting on shore were members of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians and thousands of spectators.

For the first time in 20 years, the Puyallups are hosting the Tribal Canoe Journey. The annual event takes place each summer in the waters of the Salish Sea: From Puget Sound to the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia.

“It’s already a success,” tribal Chairman Bill Sterud said. “It’s amazing, all these people come from everywhere by canoe. All I can do is hold up my hands and say thank you.”

The annual canoe journey allows different nations to learn from one another and revitalize their native cultures.

“We have created relationships all up and down the coast,” Puyallup canoe chairman Chester Earl said. “At one point, the Puyallup had no songs. By traveling to other nations, we’ve been able to pick things back up.”

It’s also changed lives.

Earl grew up in a rough part of Tacoma.

“I was going down a bad path,” in 1994 at age 20, he recalled. “One day I bumped into a canoe. I found out about the canoe journey. It changed my life forever.”

The annual journey started in 1989 as a native contribution for the state’s centennial.

When the Puyallups last hosted the event in 1998, only 20 canoes made the journey. Saturday’s event saw canoes from as far south as the Chinook Tribe in Willapa Bay to as far north as Alaska.

“This is our DNA, the Salish Sea is how we traveled,” Earl said. “It was our highway. It’s how we bartered. It’s how we traded.”

And it’s how people made love connections.

“In a village, we were related to everybody,” Earl said. “So, we had to get in a canoe to find a wife.”

Puyallup tribal council member Tim Reynon noted that the theme of the journey is, “Honoring our medicine.”

“It has meant healing for our communities,” Reynon said. “Not just ours, but the surrounding communities and everyone that’s traveling down to come here today.”

On Tuesday, the tribe revealed the latest plans for its new Interstate 5 casino. On Friday, its flag was raised over Tacoma’s Municipal Building.

“That’s huge,” Reynon said. “Recognition from the local jurisdictions that we are here. We have always been here. We will always be here.”


As the welcoming ceremony began Saturday, a bald eagle flew overhead. The crowd craned their necks to watch it.

Speakers told of the tribe’s cultural near-extinction.

“You can break our hearts but you can’t break our spirit,” said council member Annette Bryan.

Soon, Commencement Bay’s waters, turned teal blue by glacial melt, were filled with black, red and cedar-brown canoes.

One by one, each canoe asked permission to land. After beaching on the tide flats, the canoes were immediately surrounded by up to 50 people who picked them up, carried them across the muddy ground and left them above the high-tide line.

Longshoremen from locals 22 and 23 as well as National Guard members, sweat running down their faces, joined tribal members and other volunteers to carry the heavy canoes.

Don Svanvik, the skipper of the Wa’nukw from Alert Bay, British Columbia, had his canoe placed on logs. The bow of the ship carried cedar boughs.

Svanvik, the chief of the Namgis Nation, carved the dugout canoe with family members’ help.

Currents were favorable on the trip down from Canada, he said. His eight-person crew even raised a sail, Svanvik said.

“When you put up a sail you have an instant appreciation for sailing,” he said. “Our ancestors used sails all the time.”

The Wa’nukw’s longest day of paddling/sailing was 24 miles, Svanvik said.

“You feel exhausted,” he said, but also a sense of satisfaction.

“It’s a strange feeling,” he said. “I don’t think there are words for it in the English language.”

A canoe is the ultimate team sport, Svanvik said.

“If everybody pulls together, it goes easy,” Svanvik said. “If someone’s tired or not feeling good and they slack off, you can feel it. It transmits around the canoe.”

The Namgis Nation, on Vancouver Island’s northern end, never lost its seagoing ways, he said.

“We’re close to losing it now,” Svanvik said. “We’re fishers. We’re losing that ability because there’s hardly any fish left to catch.”

The journey and celebration moved to Chief Leschi School for a feast Saturday evening.

On Sunday, protocol begins. Each group will present songs, dances, stories and gifts to the host nation.

It’s the Puyallup’s responsibility to feed and provide rest for the visiting nations, Puyallup vice chairman David Bean said.

“That goes on all week,” he said. “Some folks, some families, they have a lot of songs and stories. To honor our medicine, we’re going to allow them to tell that story and share that story, that medicine with us.”

Connie McCloud, the tribe’s cultural director, said medicine means something different than pills and doctors.

“The medicine comes from the water,” McCloud said. “Our water comes from our sacred mountain. It comes from the land, it’s our plants, it’s our food.”

McCloud, whose spiritual name is Cedar Moon Woman, said the tribe’s Chinook Landing Marina is on ancestral land.

“That’s why it meant so much for us to be here, among our waters,” she said, “to have a landing place, a good place to land but also to be visible here on these waters that says we are the Puyallup people, the people of the water.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor