Tribal Canoe Journeys on hiatus in 2015 after no host comes forward

By Arwyn Rice, Peninsula Daily News

Canoes line Hollywood Beach in Port Angeles as participants in the Paddle to Quinault 2013 arrive at the traditional territory of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe. — Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News
Canoes line Hollywood Beach in Port Angeles as participants in the Paddle to Quinault 2013 arrive at the traditional territory of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe. — Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — The Tribal Canoe Journeys, traditionally an annual event, is expected to take a one-year hiatus in 2015 for the first time since 1993.

“No one has stepped up to the plate to host [the Canoe Journey] in 2015,” said Frances Charles, tribal chairwoman of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe.

The first canoe journey was the 1989 “Paddle to Seattle,” which was conceived by Quinault tribal member Emmet Oliver and Frank Brown of Bella Bella.

That led to the first Canoe Journey in 1993 in Bella Bella.

For the journeys, tribes throughout the Pacific Northwest, as well as some from Canada and Alaska, gather teams of pullers.

They leave their own shores in canoes and visit other tribal lands along the way. Before they land, they ask the host tribe or first nation for permission to come ashore.

Landings are followed by meals, storytelling and the exchange of traditional songs, dances and gifts.

The journey culminates at a different location each year in a weeklong potlatch and celebration of tribal cultures.

The journeys will resume in July 2016 for the “Paddle to Nisqually.”

Typically, a tribe will announce itself as host two to three years ahead of time, so members of the canoe families familiar with the system have known for a year that it was unlikely there would be a 2015 event, said Vickie Carroll, Canoe Journeys coordinator for the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe in Blyn.

This past July, at the 2014 Paddle to Bella Bella’s final week, it was clear there wouldn’t be one in 2015, Carroll said.

“It’s a huge, huge undertaking,” she said.

Carroll said host tribes feed and provide places for as many as 10,000 people for the final week of welcoming ceremonies, potlatches and games, which can take years for tribes to save for and plan.

“It might have to do with the cost of hosting the journey,” she said.

Most North Olympic Peninsula tribes are planning alternative cultural activities next summer.

The Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, which hosted a Canoe Journey in 2005, is planning to host a celebration of the removal of the dams on the Elwha River.

It will be a gathering similar to those of the Canoe Journeys, but for a single weekend, likely July 17-19, Charles said.

Planning for the celebration is in its early stages, and the details are still being worked out, she said.

Carroll said that when no one took up the mantle for the 2015 journey, she began working on organizing a smaller canoe trip among the Klallam sister tribes — the Lower Elwha Klallam, the Jamestown S’Klallam and the Port Gamble S’Klallam.

The trip will be organized to avoid conflicting with the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe’s Elwha River celebration, she said.

Dates for the smaller journey have not yet been established.

Many tribes organize their summer activities around the Canoe Journeys.

The Quinault Nation, located in west Jefferson and Grays Harbor counties, has hosted in the past a “warrior youth camp” that teaches traditional culture and values to young tribal members, culminating with the Canoe Journeys trip.

“I understand that our local canoe families are focusing on a canoe camping trip in the summer of 2015 with the youth, which will prepare them very well for the trip to Nisqually,” said Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Nation, which hosted the journey in 2013.

“While we may miss not having a Canoe Journey in 2015, the spirit of the journey is very much alive,” Sharp said.

“Setting the next one for 2016 was a wise move that will help make that event even greater.”

Sharp said the Canoe Journeys have become a touchstone gathering for the tribes of the Pacific Northwest — one of the largest traditional gatherings of indigenous people anywhere in the world.

“This outstanding cultural celebration has changed thousands of lives, infused amazing vitality into Native culture that will last generations,” Sharp said.

“It has educated hundreds of thousands of people about our customs, our legacies and our priorities in life.

“The Canoe Journeys have opened the ocean and other ancestral highways to new generations while bringing back a culture that was nearly lost,” she said.

The Quileute, who hosted a two-day celebration at LaPush in 2013 during the Journey to Quinault, will participate in the Elwha ceremony, the tribal council said.

“We recognize the importance for our neighbors to have their river flow free of obstruction so their watershed can return to a more natural state,” the council said in a written statement.

“The Elwha tribe has always been a generous host for all canoes families going through their territories, and we look forward to celebrating this historic event with them.”

The Quileute plan to travel to the potlatch in traditional canoes.

At the Makah Reservation in Neah Bay, the Makah Canoe Families are planning a cultural camp for the pullers who would have otherwise been part of the Canoe Journeys, with some activities planned for the larger Makah community, said Polly DeBari, a co-captain of the Makah Canoe Families.

The Makah hosted the Tribal Canoe Journey in 2010.

The break in Canoe Journeys is both a disappointment and a relief, DeBari said.

While those traveling do not need to plan as much as the hosts, there is a lot of organizing for the pullers, their support teams on land, their support boat and training.

“Taking on a journey for a day or a couple of days or three weeks, it’s a lot of work,” she said.

Canoe Journey’s message: ‘We need to wake up to what’s happening to Mother Earth’

The canoe from Suquamish embarks on this year's journey to Bella Bella.— image credit: Richard D. Oxley / North Kitsap Herald
The canoe from Suquamish embarks on this year’s journey to Bella Bella.
— image credit: Richard D. Oxley / North Kitsap Herald

By Richard Walker, North Kitsap Herald

LITTLE BOSTON — Pullers in the 2014 Canoe Journey are in for a long one, a 500-miler to the territory of the Heiltsuk First Nation — Bella Bella, British Columbia. They’ll be richly rewarded for the experience.

They’ll travel through territory so beautiful it will be impossible to forget: Rugged, forested coastlines; island-dotted straits and narrow, glacier-carved passages; through Johnstone Strait, home of the largest resident pod of orcas in the world; along the shores of the Great Bear Rainforest, one of the largest remaining tracts of unspoiled temperate rainforest left in the world.

They’ll also travel waters that are increasingly polluted and under threat.

Pullers will travel the marine highways of their ancestors, past Victoria, which dumps filtered, untreated sewage into the Salish Sea. They’ll travel the routes U.S. energy company Kinder Morgan plans to use to ship 400 tanker loads of tar sands oil each year. Canoes traveling from the north will pass the inlets leading to Kitimat, where crude oil from Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline would be loaded onto tankers bound for Asia; Canada approved the pipeline project on June 17. Canoes from the Lummi Nation near Bellingham will pass Cherry Point, a sacred and environmentally sensitive area where Gateway Pacific proposes a coal train terminal; early site preparation was done without permits and desecrated ancestral burials.

Young activist Ta’kaiya Blaney of the Sliammon First Nation sang of her fears of potential environmental damage to come in her song, “Shallow Waters”:

“Come with me to the emerald sea / Where black gold spills into my ocean dreams.

“Nothing to be found, no life is around / It’s just the sound of mourning in the air.”

Native leaders hope the Canoe Journey calls public attention to the fragility of this environment.

“We need to wake up to what’s happening to Mother Earth,” said Cecile Hansen, chairwoman of the Duwamish Tribe and a great-great-grandniece of Chief Seattle.

“We’re the indigenous people of the land. If anybody should be raising that flag, it should be Native Americans.”

Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman is pulling in the Suquamish canoe to Bella Bella.

WEB-Peg-Deam-flag“The Journey is a cultural, spiritual, ceremonial and social event,” he said. “The Journey can provide a platform for expressing our Tribal values that include habitat protection and improving or protecting water quality. Decisions on if and how to participate in political expressions are decisions made by each Tribal canoe family individually.”

Micah McCarty is a former chairman of the Makah Nation and a member of the board of First Stewards, which seeks to unite indigenous voices to collaboratively advance adaptive climate-change strategies.

He sees the Canoe Journey as an exercise in Tribal sovereignty, particularly in the realm of environmental education.

U.S. v. Washington, also known as the Boldt decision, reaffirmed that Treaty Tribes had reserved for themselves 50 percent of the annual finfish harvest; a later court decision extended that to include shellfish. In addition, Boldt established the state and Treaty Tribes as fisheries co-managers.

“The state-Tribal co-management relationship relative to … US v Washington is more effectively built on Tribal governments assuming more and more of the federal trust responsibility in the spirit of self-governance and by directly investing in Tribally determined education,” he said.

“Native sovereignty is as good as it is practiced and implemented. No one else can do this for us, and the best investment in sovereignty is education by Indian sovereign design — including curriculum pertaining to treaty resource damages [caused by] climate change and carbon pollution, particularly in the form of carbonic acid.”

The Canoe Journey is itself a tool to monitor the health of the sea. In each Canoe Journey since 2008, in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey, several canoes carry probes that collect water data and feed the data into a recorder aboard the canoe. The data measures water temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, pH and turbidity.

The USGS is using the data to track water quality and its effects on ecosystem dynamics. You can read the results from 2008-2013 at

It’s the Canoe Journey’s first return to Bella Bella since 1993, when canoes made the long journey north to fulfill a vision of Canoe Journey founders Emmett Oliver and Frank Brown in 1989 after the Paddle to Seattle that was held as part of Washington’s centennial celebration. That 1993 journey sparked a revival in indigenous travel on the marine highways of the ancestors.

En route to the final destination, canoes visit indigenous nations along the way, each stop filled with sharing: traditional foods, languages, songs, dances and teachings. Pulling great distances can test physical and mental discipline. Traveling the way of the ancestors can be a spiritual experience, and songs often come to pullers on the water.

This journey will be as challenging as the 1993 journey. From Little Boston, canoes travel west to Port Angeles, then cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Vancouver Island. They’ll travel north along the east side of the island to Port Hardy, then cross big water from Vancouver Island to the B.C. mainland. As they head north, they’ll pull through passages and channels and will have to time each transit right so they’re not pulling against tides.

More than 100 canoes participated in last year’s journey to the Quinault Nation. The distance and isolated destination in this year’s journey requires a month off for peninsula and South Sound pullers and support crews. Heiltsuk is expecting 54 canoes.

Three Suquamish canoes and one Nisqually canoe departed from Suquamish on June 17, moored overnight in Kingston, then arrived at Point Julia on June 19. Those canoes and one from Port Gamble S’Klallam will depart for Jamestown S’Klallam on June 20, then meet up with canoes from Pacific Coast Tribes at Elwha Klallam. Canoes will cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca on June 22 for Vancouver Island and points north. All are scheduled to arrive in Bella Bella on July 13.

Among those traveling part of the journey: Marylin Bard of Kingston, Emmett Oliver’s daughter. She will travel in a five-person river canoe that was gifted to her father by the Quinault Nation last year.

“We will be traveling the ‘Old Way,’ carrying our own supplies on the canoe,” she wrote in an email. “No support boat, no hosting, just camp along the way. [We] plan to fish and crab for food.”

Get more information about the 2014 Canoe Journey/Paddle to Bella Bella: