Prayers and medicine on the Paddle to Quinault

By Richard Walker, North Kitsap Herald

Most people watching the Canoe Journey understand the annual event based on what they see: The arrival and departure of colorful Northwest Native canoes, the indigenous songs of welcome on the shore, the clambakes and traditional dinners, the evening ceremonies.

But there’s a backstory: The people who make or prepare gifts. The people who catch the fish and gather the shellfish to feed guests. The support crews that break down, transport and set up camp — from tents to cooking stations. The pre-dawn wake-ups so canoes can get underway with the tide. The quiet times at camp, when elders and artists and storytellers pass on their knowledge. The prayer warriors who lift others up. The singers who offer songs as medicine.

It takes a lot of prayer and medicine to get through the Journey. Few things can test an individual’s physical, emotional and spiritual readiness like pulling six hours in a canoe after a few hours sleep.

Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman knows this. On July 18, he was in Washington, D.C., to be sworn as a member of the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. He flew back the next day and was present when Suquamish hosted canoes. The following morning, he was up with the tide, pulling from Suquamish to Port Gamble S’Klallam.

Eden, a 9-year-old puller from Sauk-Suiattle, told me she was so tired on the water that if she shut her eyes she’d fall asleep. But another puller would nudge her awake, and her uncle would sing songs — some traditional, some funny — and she’d pull on.

Out on the water, you have to be prepared for the unexpected. You have to trust your fellow pullers and your skipper. You have to watch for each other. You have to have respect for the water and pay attention to detail.

Respect and attention to detail are lessons that are reinforced on the protocol floor — lessons that can be applied in life.

In Suquamish’s House of Awakened Culture, two Squaxin canoe family members fell during a dance in which one dancer carried another. When the dance was concluded, they returned to the spot where they fell, and a leader sang over them with a deer hoof rattle. Everyone in the house stood. The leader then shook hands with Forsman and apologized to him, assuring him that the family did not mean to disrupt the evening’s ceremonies.

Doing this was important. John Cayou, a Shaker Church minister from Swinomish, said earlier in the Journey that, to respect the water, it’s important to have good thoughts out there, with no anger or resentment.

And so, the mishap on the floor of the House of Awakened Culture was resolved. The dancers could put it behind them. And the songs, like the Journey, continued.

The songs and dances were powerful. The sound of drums and singing voices filled the house. Women danced in regalia — black and red shawls, some fringed, some with button or embroidered designs.

Then, Squaxin offered a Power Song that had belonged to John Slocum, the founder of the Indian Shaker Church. Among those dancing: Ray Krise, who uses a wheelchair. “The song gave me the strength to leave my chair and do another round here, something I never thought I’d be able to do.”

In Port Gamble S’Klallam’s House of Knowledge longhouse, songs were medicine for a visiting canoe family member who talked about her teen son’s suicide. Songs were medicine for a visiting canoe family member  who said he was stepping down as skipper because he felt his own behavior lacking. In bringing their pain to the floor, they ensured that they wouldn’t have to travel their journey alone. Just like on the water.

Francis James of the Sacred Water Canoe Family said later it felt good to “sing a few songs and lift up hearts in happiness.”

I remembered what Suquamish’s chairman said back at the House of Awakened Culture: “These things can have a healing process. The Journey will help heal, but we have to set our egos aside and let the energy on this floor heal us.”

The prayers and songs continued to carry canoe families through the trials of the Journey: Canoes that got caught in the tide. The canoe that overturned en route from Port Townsend to Jamestown S’Klallam. Canoes that had to turn back en route to Elwha Klallam because of rough seas. At some point, they all got back in the water and continued the Journey.

No. 8 of the “Ten Rules of the Canoe,” by the Quileute Canoe Family, states, “Being on the Journey, we are much more than ourselves. We are part of the movement of life. We have a destination, and for once, our will is pure, our goal is to go on.”

And so they did.

— Richard Walker has been covering the Canoe Journey since the 2004 Paddle to Chemainus. He will report from the Quinault Nation, the final destination in this year’s Journey.