Nisqually’s Canoe Journey reignites Coast Salish culture

Voices and drums of the Canoe Journey 2016 Paddle to Nisqually

After more than a year of planning the Paddle to Nisqually, Canoe Journey 2016 brought thousands to the host Nisqually Tribal Reservation near Yelm for a week of song, dance and the sharing of cultures and traditional ways.
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After more than a year of planning the Paddle to Nisqually, Canoe Journey 2016 brought thousands to the host Nisqually Tribal Reservation near Yelm for a week of song, dance and the sharing of cultures and traditional ways.

Dancers wearing black and red shawls with fringe that shimmered in the sunshine gracefully stepped and spun to the heartbeat-like cadence of hand drums.

Nisqually tribal elder Cleo Frank proudly watched as the Coast Salish group shared its songs and dances on the soccer field-sized patch of dusty brown grass circled by huge white tents.

A wide grin spread across Frank’s face when she talked about the joy she gets from seeing the tiny tots mimic the older ones.

It’s one of the ways that Coast Salish culture will stay alive, she said. And it’s going to ensure the canoe journey and all of its traditions remain accessible for future generations.

Hosting the 2016 Canoe Journey Paddle to Nisqually was like bringing the Olympics, the Super Bowl and a major concert to the reservation near Yelm, about 15 miles east of Olympia, she said. The event’s weeklong “protocol” celebration was scheduled to wrap up late Saturday.

“There is no other event that compares to this,” said Frank, 59. “It is a dream come true. … This is the big show. This is the big dance.”

About 100 tribal canoes from Canada, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest arrived under a bright blue sky painted with windswept clouds at the tip of the Port of Olympia peninsula July 30.

It took about six hours for all of the canoe families, as they are known, to come ashore; each performed songs and asked for permission before stepping onto Nisqually’s ancestral territory.

“When you paddle into someone else’s home, you sing a song to announce yourself, who you are and where you’re coming from,” said Shamantsut Nahanee, 34, one of the skippers with the Squamish Canoe Family out of Vancouver, B.C. “You’re announcing that you come in peace.”

Organizers say more than 50 tribes from around the country were represented at the landing event.

Some participants had been on the water for more than two weeks, joining other coastal groups as they pulled toward the southern tip of the Salish Sea.

Some groups, such as the Grand Ronde Canoe Family from Oregon, trailered their long canoes for a portion and joined in at one of the Washington stops.

Canoe Journey: It's about strength, sharing and tradition

Participants in the 2016 Canoe Journey -Paddle to Nisqually share their experiences and thoughts on the canoe journey and weeklong protocol celebration.

Lisa Pemberton lpemberton@theolympian.com

The Nisqually Canoe Family drove up to Bellingham about 10 days before the landing so that they could participate in the last leg of the eastern side of the journey, which included stops hosted by the Lummi, Samish, Swinomish, Tulalip, Muckleshoot and Puyallup tribes.

About 15,000 people attended the landing event that was hosted by the Nisqually, the Port of Olympia and the city of Olympia, according to estimates provided by Olympia police. That’s a few thousand more people than was estimated at the 2012 Canoe Journey hosted by Squaxin Island Tribe.

“I’ve never seen such huge stands filled with people,” Nahanee said. “That was amazing.”

Sunday was a day to rest aching muscles, socialize and settle into camp at the protocol site, which would become a temporary home for thousands of indigenous people, most from the Northwest, Canada and Alaska.

It also was a day for hundreds of people, many from Puget Sound area tribes, to gather and celebrate the establishment of the Medicine Creek Treaty National Memorial at the newly renamed Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

Nisqually’s traditional territory once included about 2 million acres near present-day Olympia and Tenino, stretching north to DuPont and southeast to Mount Rainier.

The 1,280-acre Nisqually reservation was established through the Medicine Creek Treaty on Dec. 26, 1854. Through executive order, it was eventually enlarged to 4,717 acres on both sides of the Nisqually River. But in 1917, the U.S. Army moved onto those lands, and eventually Pierce County condemned 3,353 acres of Nisqually land and transferred it to the Army to expand Fort Lewis.

During the past 25 years, the tribe has reacquired more than 1,000 acres of land holdings on or near the reservation, including about 250 acres in the Hawks Prairie area of Lacey.

The memorial marks the location where tribes signed the Medicine Creek Treaty with the federal government, which outlined tribes’ traditional fishing and hunting rights. Ensuring those treaties were honored would later become the life’s work of the late Nisqually activist Billy Frank Jr.

The Medicine Creek Treaty covered nine tribes and bands of Indians including the Nisqually Indian Tribe, Squaxin Island Tribe, Puyallup Tribe of Indians and Muckleshoot Indian Tribe.

“Chief Leschi instilled into all his people to always keep fighting for what is rightfully yours, and that continues today,” Nisqually tribal chairman Farron McCloud said at a ceremony in July.

Nisqually tribal council member Hanford McCloud receives a hosting gift from the visiting Jamestown Canoe Family as fellow council members Willie Frank III and chairman Farron McCloud watch, along with Julie Palm, the tribal council treasurer. Steve Bloom sbloom@theolympian.com


Tradition dictates that the groups that traveled the farthest are first on the schedule for protocol. This year, that was the canoe family from Bella Bella, British Columbia.

About 10 a.m. Monday, the canoe journey protocol ceremony began, with songs, dances, food, gift giving and other activities.

“Protocol is a wonderful sharing of the different tribes’ cultures — their songs, their dances, what’s special to them and a little bit of sharing of their journey as well,” said Alice Martineau of the Grand Ronde Canoe Family. “It’s also a time when you get to see everyone you haven’t seen for the last year, so it’s really very nice.”

Some of the performances went on for hours; after gifts were exchanged, the visiting canoe families asked for permission to leave and begin their journey home.

The Nisqually Canoe Family offered to host this year’s event during the 2014 Canoe Journey Paddle to Bella Bella. They spent more than a year preparing for it, McCloud said.

“This is probably the biggest event, biggest potlatch, that the Nisqually Tribe has ever hosted,” he said.

About 40 acres of trees were cleared to create the protocol site, which became a mini village, with a performance area, dining tents, spots for dozens of food and craft vendors, and hundreds of camp sites. Parking lots were built, roads were expanded, and temporary power was brought to the site.

Eventually, the area, which is west of the tribal headquarters just off state Route 510, will become a much-needed housing development for the tribe, McCloud said.

“There will be houses, apartments, duplexes,” he said. “…We have plans for an elders’ facility and clinic.”

Nearly 600 of the tribe's enrolled members live on the reservation, which is home to the bustling and recently expanded Red Wind Casino.

During the past few years, the tribe has invested in numerous capital projects, including a $7.6 million youth center, a $20 million jail, and a $10 million, 26,000-square-foot tribal administration center. In January, it celebrated the opening of what many consider the heart of Nisqually: the $5.1 million expansion and remodeling of the 25,600-square-foot Billy Frank Jr. Community Services Center.

Dancers and drummers from the Songbird canoe family perform on the protocol grounds Wednesday during the weeklong 2016 Canoe Journey-Paddle to Nisqually protocol ceremony on the Nisqually Reservation. Steve Bloom sbloom@theolympian.com

During the early days of protocol, participants were abuzz about Nisqually’s hospitality. One woman said she’d never seen so many portable toilets at a canoe journey.

Others raved about the solar-powered cellphone charging stations, golf carts to transport elders on the site, and the tribe’s commitment to live-stream all of the performances so that people who couldn’t be at the site could watch it from home.

“We tried to think of everything and anything to accommodate people,” Frank said.

Tribal officials say the event wouldn’t have happened without the small army of volunteers who pitched in to help with traffic control, serve meals, drive shuttles and keep the area clean. That included about 320 volunteers from the greater community, according to volunteer coordinator Anita Paz. In addition, each of the tribe’s 600 employees contributed time to the effort, some working four-hour shifts after their regular work day at the event.

“I want to give a big shoutout to all of the tribal employees, because if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have made it,” Paz said.

For centuries, canoe journey was a way of life for Coast Salish tribes, said Nisqually tribal secretary Sheila McCloud. Families took the “saltwater highway” to visit each other and attend potlatches.

The concept was reborn during the 1980s, when the late Emmett Oliver of Quinault got the state to finance the carving of several canoes to be used in ceremonies for the Washington State Centennial. The event, coined Paddle to Seattle, began in La Push and included a rendezvous in Suquamish before the 18 participating canoes headed into Duwamish territory and Golden Gardens Park in Seattle. A two-day celebration was held that included canoe races, songs, dances and food.

“You walked around, and you felt the electricity in the air,” Frank recalls. “I mean, I have no way to explain it. I was just like, ‘Whoa, whoa, this is something.’ 

Others felt the cultural resurgence too, and more canoe journeys would follow. The first ones were held every four years, but eventually they became an annual event.


Nisqually didn’t get its own canoe until 2001. Until then, its canoe family traveled with the Lower Elwha canoe, Frank said.

During their rookie year, Nisqually only had one song to share at protocol, Nisqually Canoe Family member Maury Sanchez recalls.

It was awkward, but the other canoe families were supportive and forgiving of their early mistakes, Frank said.

“We stood in the back, and we hid in the back behind all of the tall people because we didn’t know what we were doing,” she said.

Many Native Americans believe that songs have a life of their own, and they eventually returned to Nisqually and many other Pacific Northwest tribes. Frank credits the canoe journey for the return of Coast Salish songs, dances, stories and languages to Puget Sound area tribes.

“We have a whole generation now that were born into it that will never know a time when the canoe journey hasn’t been here,” Frank said. “There are songs that are coming that have been asleep for a while, and they’re awake now, and they’re coming out.”

Meanwhile, the canoe journey concept is spreading to other indigenous groups.

Hickory Edwards of Syracuse, New York, brought 20 tribal youths from the East Coast to the Paddle to Nisqually. He helped raise about $4,500 through a GoFundMe page and some raffles for the trip.

They drove in two vans and a large SUV, stopping in a parking lot after about two days so that everyone could take an hourlong nap before camping for a night in South Dakota. After that, they drove to Birch Bay, north of Bellingham, to join the canoe journey.

A row of canoes rests near the protocol grounds Wednesday during the weeklong 2016 Canoe Journey-Paddle to Nisqually protocol ceremony on the Nisqually Reservation near Yelm. Steve Bloom sbloom@theolympian.com

Although they were tired from being on the road for four days, the group found a new energy on the water, Edwards said. Some of the young people had never experienced saltwater and tides before the trip. Some had never seen a natural landmark as massive and as beautiful as Mount Rainier, he said.

“We feel this camaraderie between our East Coast family and the West Coast family and we feel so welcome here,” Edwards said. “It feels like we’re just as tied to this land as these people are.”

He said he hopes to establish a canoe journey on the East Coast someday that’s patterned after the ones in the Northwest.

“I’ve been on the water trying to do anything that I can to get my people back on the water and relearn our water ways,” said Edwards, who is from the Onondaga Nation.

Outside of the performance area, there were many other activities for participants and visitors.

Nisqually designated space for about 70 vendors who were selling everything from T-shirts with Native American designs and turtle shell rattles to beaded necklaces and buckskin dresses. Several of the vendors are regulars on the Northwest powwow circuit.

“It’s a time to just sit here and weave and visit with people,” said Lisa Toby, 43, of Bellingham. “We’ve enjoyed ourselves so far.”

She and her husband, Verle, were selling cedar hats ranging in price from about $275 to $400. They already had sold four hats and three head bands by Wednesday morning, Toby said.

Their items were created with cedar that was harvested, prepared and woven in the traditional way taught by Toby’s late father, master weaver Ted Plaster, who was known as “The Hat Man” in the region.

Toby said Nisqually’s protocol was the first time they had set up a booth since her father’s death a few years ago. She was glad they participated in it.

“It’s kind of hard traveling without him,” Toby said. “But it’s healing too.”

A fitness tent offered Zumba and CrossFit classes, a healing tent provided massages, an on-site medical clinic provided health care, and designated areas allowed elders and veterans to get away from the crowds.

Staff members with the Nisqually Tribe’s Community Garden Program taught people how to mix essential oils and create an all-natural bug repellent. They also offered people the chance to try nettle tea, all-natural lip balm, healing salves and other natural remedies. Many of the plants that were used to create the medicines were grown on the tribe’s farm near DuPont.

The Canoe Journey’s theme, “Don’t Forget the Water,” could have easily been changed to “Don’t Forget Our Uncle,” since Billy Frank Jr. was known as uncle by many on the Nisqually reservation.

And nobody did forget. In fact, several groups made references to the beloved leader during their protocol performances.

Frank’s son, Willie Frank III, who is a tribal council member, told participants he was grateful people are carrying on his dad’s message, legacy and fight to protect the environment for future generations.

“He’d be sitting right here now alongside of all of our elders,” he said. “And he’d be happy.”

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433, @Lisa_Pemberton

Canoe Journey locations

1989: Paddle to Seattle

1993: Paddle to Bella Bella, British Columbia

1994: Youth Paddle to Olympia

1995-1996: Full Circle Youth Paddle in the Puget Sound

1996: Full Circle Youth Paddle in the Puget Sound

1997: Paddle to LaPush

1998: Paddle to Puyallup

1999: Paddle to Ahousaht, B.C.

2000: Paddle to Songhees, B.C., and Paddle to Pendleton, Oregon

2001: Paddle to Squamish, B.C.

2002: Paddle to Quinault

2003: Paddle to Tulalip

2004: Paddle to Chemainus, B.C.

2005: Paddle to Elwha

2006: Paddle to Muckleshoot

2007: Paddle to Lummi

2008: Paddle to Cowichan, B.C.

2009: Paddle to Suquamish

2010: Paddle to Makah

2011: Paddle to Swinomish

2012: Paddle to Squaxin

2013: Paddle to Quinault and Paddle to Warm Springs, Oregon

2014: Paddle to Bella Bella, B.C.

2015: Various locations hosted small journeys in Washington and British Columbia

2016: Paddle to Nisqually

2017: Paddle to Sliammon, B.C.

Source: paddletonisqually.com