BY: DUSTIN BATTY
Many Native American cultural traditions have been lost due to the relentless impositions of Western culture during colonial times. One tradition that was at risk of being lost was the use of canoes by many West Coast tribes, since poor relations with the Washington government meant they were not allowed to hunt or fish on the land that had been granted to them. The relationship between the state government and the governments of the affected tribes greatly improved in 1989, and this reconciliation was celebrated with the Paddle to Seattle, in which 15 Native American tribes participated.
The Paddle to Seattle was the event that inspired the Tribal Canoe Journeys that have occurred annually since 1993. These Journeys have revitalized canoe culture in many different tribes, most of whom are from the west coast of North America, but some of whom, such as the Maori of New Zealand or the Iroquois Confederacy from eastern North America, travel for quite a distance. Depending on how far away the tribe lives, the journey can take up to a month. As they arrive, each group asks permission to land its canoe in its traditional language.
A potlatch begins after every tribe arrives at the destination. The ceremony lasts for six days, during which everyone participates in traditional songs of the various tribes, often with dances and drumming. This event encourages cultural exchange between the different peoples, and many of the tribes have experienced a cultural revitalization because of it. The website detailing the 2016 Paddle to Nisqually, says, “Historical cultural practices, from carving techniques to gifting ceremonies, cedar weaving to regalia making, have been revived and rediscovered, while songs have resurfaced to be shared at Journey’s end.”
Perhaps the most important aspect of these Journeys is the fact that they get the youth more interested in these cultural practices. The Journey and the ceremonies that follow are both educational and fun, keeping even the youngest participants involved in the traditional processes. “I’m here getting my real education,” Enrique Lopez, who participated in the 2016 Canoe Journey, told a reporter. “Just coming in and being there in front of all the people, being announced as NAYA, filled me up with more pride than I have felt in a long time. It just made me feel like I was a part of something larger than just myself.”
The Tribal Canoe Journeys have been hosted by various Native American communities along the Northwest Coast of the continent. From Olympia, Washington to Bella Bella, British Columbia, the participants visit a diverse range of areas and peoples through the years. This year the We Wai Kai and We Wai Kum Nations will host the event, welcoming the other tribes to their land in the Campbell River area of British Columbia.