Tribal canoes carrying 5,000 people land at Point Defiance

Long-distance canoe paddlers stop in Tacoma

The Journey to Nisqually brings hundreds of tribal members paddling from afar to Olympia this weekend. On Thursday they came ashore, guests of the Puyallup Tribe, at Owens Beach in Point Defiance Park.
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The Journey to Nisqually brings hundreds of tribal members paddling from afar to Olympia this weekend. On Thursday they came ashore, guests of the Puyallup Tribe, at Owens Beach in Point Defiance Park.

It took about two dozen people Thursday afternoon to haul one of the massive dugout canoes out of the water and onto the gravel shore of Owen Beach.

Patrica Elofson of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe in Port Angeles looked on fondly.

“Everybody joins in,” said Elofson, 66. “Those people probably aren’t even from that tribe.”

That camaraderie — between tribes and among friends old and new — was on full display, as nearly 5,000 Native American people landed in tribal seafaring canoes at Point Defiance.

It was one of the final stops on the 2016 Paddle to Nisqually, a heavily spiritual and cultural canoe journey down the saltwater highways to the Port of Olympia, where they will land Saturday.

Some of the canoes, hailing from as far away as Canada, were in the final leg of a two-week journey. Thursday morning, they paddled 28 miles to reach Point Defiance from Seattle. They will leave again Friday (July 29).

Irene Peters, 17, also of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, has spent the last few years on grounds crew, preparing to welcome the canoes when they land.

This year, when Elofson told her they needed more people on the canoes, she got the chance to go to sea once again.

After days of traveling, Peters was tired and sore — but the work was worth it, she said.

“I kept pulling,” she said. “It’s a shared experience that allows us to unite, not only as coastal tribes, but as Native Americans.”


The solidarity didn’t end there — identical black and white T-shirts could be seen everywhere on the packed beach. On the front was a photo of Jacqueline “Jackie” Salyers.

Tacoma police fatally shot the 33-year-old Puyallup tribal member Jan. 28 because they feared she was driving her car at them.

On the back of the shirts was the declaration: “Native Lives Matter.”

Clinton McCloud of the Puyallup tribe, who helped organize the Point Defiance landing and celebration, said many members of the local tribes don’t believe the evidence adds up.

Elofson and Peters were among those wearing the “Justice for Jackie” T-shirts.

“It’s emotional. It’s rough,” Elofson said. “We’re all supporting native groups who are concerned about the injustices we face on a regular basis.”

“It’s our way of saying, ‘We won’t stand for injustice,’ ” added Elofson’s granddaughter Gillian Elofson, 17.

Yet part of the value of the canoe journey, Patricia Elofson said, was spiritual healing, and learning about the culture they share. That’s why there was such emphasis on bringing youthful members of the tribe, such as Peters and Gillian Elofson, to the gathering, she said.

“It’s a whole new generation,” Patricia Elofson said. “(Gillian’s) mom is here too, so we have three generations on this journey.”

When another tribe visits, McCloud said, it’s traditional to feed them. So as the last of the canoes were pulled onto the beach, everyone prepared to go to Chief Leschi School, where the Puyallup tribe welcomed them with a cultural celebration full of food, song and dance.

Gillian Elofson said everyone — tribal or not — was welcome at the celebration to watch or take photos.

McCloud said the celebration is an important chance to put their cultural pride on display and the annual canoe journey an opportunity to celebrate their heritage and share it with others.

“It’s a piece of who we are,” he said.

Hannah Shirley: 253-597-8670, @itshannah7

2016 Paddle to Nisqually

What: More than 120 canoes landing; afterward, the Nisqually tribe will host 10,000 guests.

Where: Port of Olympia.

When: The landing ceremony, in which canoe families ask for permission to come ashore, often in their native language, is expected to take several hours. The event opens at 10 a.m. and the canoes are expected to begin arriving about 1 p.m.

Parking: Designated downtown lots or on the street. Access to Marine Drive will be restricted starting at the Marine Drive-Jefferson Street and the Market Street-Franklin Street intersections, where free shuttle service will begin at 10 a.m.