Traditional canoes return to the waters of the Pacific Northwest
‘Intertribal Canoe Journey’ and ‘Gathering of the Eagles’ are back this year
Canoes arrive at Shipyard Cove on San Juan Island, Washington, on May 22, 2022 during the Gathering of the Eagles Canoe Encampment. (Photo by Richard Arlin Walker)
ANACORTES, Washington — Coast Salish and First Nation canoes have been ceremonially reawakened in the Pacific Northwest in preparation for a return to the ancestral marine highways and celebratory cultural gatherings.
And for Indigenous peoples of the region, there is much to celebrate.
The Intertribal Canoe Journey — the annual Pacific Northwest gathering of canoe cultures — returns in July after a three-year break forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A smaller event influenced by the Canoe Journey helped carry people through those years of cultural drought. Called the Gathering of the Eagles Canoe Encampment, it also returns this year.
The Gathering of the Eagles is scheduled for May 21-26 in the San Juan Islands, an archipelago located in the middle of the Salish Sea and bounded by British Columbia, Canada, to the west and north, and by Washington State to the east and south.
An unknown number of canoes will participate. Last year’s participants included Carvers Camp, a cultural education program for Indigenous youth; Chief Leschi School, located on the Puyallup Reservation; Hawaiian Voyaging Canoe Society, whose members have relatives at the Lummi Nation; and the Stillaguamish Tribe.
The Intertribal Canoe Journey is scheduled for July 31 to Aug. 6 at the Muckleshoot Tribe’s homelands in the Seattle suburb of Auburn, Washington. This will be the 29th Canoe Journey; Muckleshoot last hosted in 2006.
“We are expecting around 120 canoes to come to Muckleshoot,” said Autumn MaGee, Canoe Family Program manager for the Muckleshoot Tribe. “We are planning for 8,000 people – between traveling canoe families, spectators and our community – to attend the hosting throughout the week.”
The Gathering of the Eagles is much smaller than the Intertribal Canoe Journey, but the fact that coordinator Freddie Sul ka dub Lane was able to pull it off during the pandemic – and recruit a team of volunteers to make it happen – speaks perhaps to the importance of such gatherings.
“Bring your own chairs, umbrellas and camping gear,” Sul ka dub said. “All events are free and open to all the communities we visit.”
Ancestral marine highways
The first Intertribal Canoe Journey dates back to 1989 and the Paddle to Seattle, which took place as part of Washington’s centennial celebration.
In the time of the grandparents and great-grandparents, Indigenous people were not allowed to live within the Seattle city limits, children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools, and potlatches were illegal.
Now, Coast Salish canoes were landing once again on Seattle’s shores. A cultural renaissance was born.
“The Canoe Journey brought our canoes back to the water,” Cathy Ballew of the Lummi Nation said in a 2019 interview. “It’s also brought back the regalia and the songs. A majority of young people are learning about our way of life, practicing the lifestyle, learning the language, wearing regalia. It’s bringing back the old way of life.”
And so when the Intertribal Canoe Journey took a pandemic-induced hiatus, Lummi Nation cultural director James “Smitty” Hillaire resisted. The Canoe Journey had revived the practice of traveling to various territories in nearshore and ocean-going canoes — returning to traveling the way of the ancestors on their ancestral marine highways.
If they failed to continue to do so, Hillaire said, they risked losing the right.
Hillaire reached out to Sul ka dub — a journalist, veteran event organizer and former Lummi Nation council member — and made it clear that traveling the way of the ancestors must continue.
“I’m not asking you to organize [this gathering]. You’re going to do it,” Sul ka dub said Hillaire told him. And so he did.
Hillaire died on July 29, 2021, at the age of 86. The following summer, the Gathering of the Eagles Canoe Encampment took place. Canoes traveled from the seaside town of Anacortes to San Juan Island’s Shipyard Cove, where the group camped before traveling to the Lummi Nation.
The event was significant on several levels.
One, it was believed to be the first landing of Coast Salish canoes in San Juan Island’s Shipyard Cove since the 1855 treaty made the islands available to non-Native settlers, Sul ka dub said.
Two, participants included a Native Hawaiian contingent who learned that Indigenous Hawaiians were brought to San Juan Island to work on British-owned sheep farms in the mid-1800s when the U.S. and Great Britain both claimed the archipelago. Through those Native Hawaiian herders, numerous Coast Salish people have Hawaiian ties and vice versa.
Three, the event was a fulfillment of Hillaire’s last directive.
“My grandfather played a role in bringing [canoe travel] back to our people, so that our young ones would have that identity of knowing who they are,” Raymond Hillaire, Lummi, said at the time. “It had been lost for many generations because of colonization. This was one of the last things he worked on before he went home to our ancestors.”
The same, but different
Hosting the Intertribal Canoe Journey is a logistical feat that can cost as much as $1 million to pull off – that’s for gifting, meals, camping sites, accommodations such as restrooms and showers, and any necessary site improvements.
Canoes travel from their home territories to the final host nation, visiting tribal nations along the way. At each stop, canoe skippers stand and ask in their languages for permission to land — a protocol that is also followed in the Gathering of the Eagles.
The hosts will invite them ashore to camp, rest and eat. At night, there is honoring, gifting and cultural exchanges in community buildings or traditional longhouses, often featuring intricately carved welcome figures and house posts. Drummers and dancers from various tribal nations take to the floor.
The number of canoes grows as the journey gets closer to the final destination and participants from north, south, east and west converge on the host site.
The Intertribal Canoe Journey has grown so large that multiple Canoe Journeys have more than once taken place concomitantly.
On the other hand, the Gathering of the Eagles Canoe Encampment is a smaller, intimate event, taking place in Lummi Nation — or Lhaq’temish — territory and visiting shores that the larger Canoe Journey could not.
Local community members help with logistics and contribute dishes for the evening’s dinners. At night, participants gather around a large fire for cultural exchanges, storytelling, traditional songs and friendship dances.
The Gathering of the Eagles will depart Anacortes, in Samish Nation territory, on May 21 for Lopez Island, then head to San Juan Island on May 22, Orcas Island on May 24, and the Stommish Grounds at the Lummi Nation on May 26. At the Stommish Grounds, there will be protocol, a coastal jam and presentations about sovereignty and treaty rights.
‘The ancestors are following you’
The Gathering of the Eagles is part of the Coast Salish restoration in the San Juan Islands.
A series of events contributed to the displacement of the Indigenous population beginning in 1859. Great Britain and the United States claimed the area and neighboring islands and stationed military troops there for 13 years. The territory dispute was settled in 1872 and the international border was drawn, the result being some Coast Salish groups with ties to the islands were considered British subjects and others were considered Americans.
Traveling these waters restores Coast Salish youth to Ground Zero of their ancestral territory.
San Juan Island is the place of origin for several Coast Salish peoples; the first man, sweh-tuhn, is the common ancestor of the Lhaq’temish, Saanich, Samish and Songhees peoples. It was here that the Creator gave sweh-tuhn’s descendants reef netting, a form of salmon fishing that involves nets designed to resemble reefs, suspended between two canoes, that lead salmon into a large scoop net for harvesting.
Lutie Hillaire, a Lummi culture bearer and widow of the late James Hillaire, watched from the beach in 2022 as young people traveling the way of the ancestors arrived on her ancestral shores.
“This is getting us back with our culture again,” she said. “This is not a sport for us. It’s very sacred.”
Sul ka dub emphasized the sacredness of the journey as canoes departed Shipyard Cove for Lummi’s shores during the 2022 gathering.
“Know that the ancestors are following you,” he said, “and they are guiding you in a good way.”
The Intertribal Canoe Journey has influenced other events in addition to the Gathering of the Eagles.
There were two canoe journeys in 2000: one to the homelands of the Songhees First Nation on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and another to Pendleton, Oregon, the homelands of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Several canoe journeys took place in 2015 in the Salish Sea.
And, inspired by the cultural renaissance spurred by the Intertribal Canoe Journey, the Wadopana Nakoda of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana hosted a canoe journey on the Missouri River in 2018.
It was a reawakening of sorts: the Wadopana Nakoda were originally canoe people from the Great Lakes, and their name, Wadopana (pronounced Wa-DOH-pa-nah), means “canoe paddler.”
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