By Jaya Flanary
Tribal canoes depart on cold mornings when fog lurks above the water. By noon, the sun comes out and warms the air. Some days there is rain and wind, making the water choppy. The weather varies, but the journey continues.
The Tribal Canoe Journey is an annual event that focuses on keeping Coast Salish culture alive. Tribes paddle along the coast to different locations every year in their traditional form of transportation. This year, called the Power Paddle to Puyallup, 100 canoes are registered. Final destination: Puyallup, Washington.
“Within our culture we hold our traditions and our values very close to us and it’s not only a way of life,” said senior Kali Chargualaf, Suquamish tribe member and member of Western’s Native American Student Union. “It’s also like a form of healing and brings happiness to people, so it’s important to keep that alive.”
The first tribe to depart this year was the Hesquiaht First Nation from British Columbia, Canada, who started their journey on Sunday, July 8, according to the Paddle to Puyallup maps.
Chargualaf said pulling the canoe is a very physical job.
“I’ve been in the canoe up to nine hours before on one stretch,” she said.
Chargualaf is part of the Sacred Water Canoe Family which encompasses a diverse group of people from 14 native tribes. It is uncommon to have such a variety in a canoe family.
They will depart from Lummi Nation on Saturday, July 21, exactly 29 years after the Paddle to Seattle canoes arrived. It will take them six days to get to Puyallup. Along the way, they will stop on the coast to visit other tribes and camp.
“I would say we’re kind of the outlier,” said Sammy Mabe, Suquamish tribal council member and member of the Sacred Water family. “We kind of came up with our own name just because we’re so diverse and we just couldn’t fly under one flag. It just didn’t seem right to do so.”
After Washington was granted statehood in 1889, Native Americans here and across the nation were indoctrinated by White settlers using reservations, treaties and boarding schools.
A century later, in 1989, Gov. Booth Gardner and Washington’s 26 federally-recognized tribes met for the first Centennial Accord, aiming to recognize tribal sovereignty and begin collaboration between tribes and Washington state government.
“Up until that point there was primarily adopted culture,” Mabe said. “So in ’89 when they were doing the Centennial Accord, Emmett Oliver [Quinault Nation leader] and some of the other tribal leaders decided to do what they called the Paddle to Seattle.”
Local tribes built traditional ocean-going canoes and paddled from Suquamish to Seattle, arriving on July 21, 1989. Upon arrival, canoe skipper Frank Brown challenged the tribes to paddle to the Heiltsuk Nation in Bella Bella, British Columbia in 1993. This proposal prompted a resurgence in culture, Mabe said.
Every year since, a Pacific Northwest native nation hosts the event, acting as the final destination for participating tribes from Canada to Oregon.
Participation in Canoe Journey revives Native cultures that were lost through assimilation post-contact. Mabe believes Native people got out of touch with who they were.
“I feel like tribal people suffered immensely from that,” Mabe said. “The rates of alcoholism, diabetes, suicide, sexual assault, domestic violences, murder, arrests, prison time – are just so disproportionate to other ethnicities.”
Mabe has seen these trends begin to reverse ever since tribes started embracing their culture through Canoe Journey.
“I’ve seen so many success stories come out of Canoe Journey,” Mabe said. “I’m a firm believer the only way to fix a lot of these diseases and heart breaks that we’ve had over the generations is go back to what our ancestors did,” Mabe said.
Growing up, Mabe felt a piece of himself was missing. That hole was filled when he started pulling canoes at 17 years old.
Mabe said he has a history of struggling with addiction, which he wears proudly. “It was the Canoe Journey and the culture that got me out of that way of life,” he said.
Skipping a canoe involves leading the crew, ensuring safety for the pullers and navigating the waters.
In 2008, Mabe got the opportunity to be a skipper when another member had to quit the journey unexpectedly. He hopped in, learned by trial and error and listened closely to the skippers before him.
“You lead by example, you carry yourself the way your ancestors would have wanted you to,” Mabe said. “You should be the hardest-working person in the canoe family. I’ve always took those things to heart and feel that I do carry myself that way.”
One of Mabe’s first skippers told him, “How you carry yourself off the water reflects how you carry yourself on the water.”
According to Chargualaf, canoe rules include no drinking alcohol, smoking or cussing. She has been participating since 2009, as well as her brother, Vincent Chargualaf, who started in 2011.
Mabe said it’s best to start the tradition with children early on. Vincent Chargualaf, who works for The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, will be taking kids up for the event from Oregon.
He believes it’s difficult to get an idea of the Canoe Journey based off of a few perspectives.
“The best way to experience it is to go, jump on with a canoe family,” Vincent Chargualaf said. “Experience [it] for yourself and it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.”
The Tribal Canoe Journey is open to anyone, including non-Native people. Certain tribes, including the Suquamish, take guests with them on the trip.
“I think it’s important for people to understand our story,” Mabe said. “Especially in terms of mental health, drug addiction, violence. I just think it’s important for people to know other cultures in general. Especially in today’s divisive climate worldwide, I feel like we’re throwing up a lot of walls and not really trying to get to know our neighbors.”
Mabe said he is excited to be going out on the water again.
“Nothing hits my soul quite the same,” he said.