Western Native American tribes join annual canoe journey across Puget Sound
July 22, 2011
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- When Cynthia Iyall’s great grandmother was a girl, she traveled from Nisqually to Olympia by canoe, paddling for hours past Anderson Island and around Point Johnson to Budd Inlet.
Today, the same trip is a 16 minute drive down Interstate 5. But every year the Nisqually Indian Tribe and other Coast Salish peoples relive the old ways on an annual canoe journey across Puget Sound.
“They call it our ancestral highway,” Nisqually tribal council member Brian McCloud said.
For the last 18 years, tribes from as far as Alaska and Northern California take canoes to spend a week with a different host tribe, making short stops with tribes along the way. On Monday, 17 canoes on the “Paddle to Swinomish 2011” landed at Solo Point, which forms Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s northwestern border, to spend the night before continuing north to La Conner.
They do it to remember their ancestors, but also to learn how to live every day.
“The whole purpose is for our tribal members to bond together as well as with the other tribes,” Iyall, the Nisqually tribal chair, said. The Nisqually Tribe sent two canoes, which will join the nearly 100 expected to arrive in Swinomish on Monday. Fifteen more came from other Coast Salish tribes that had to pass Solo Point along the way.
After an entire morning of paddling from Squaxin Island, a string of canoes slid out of the fog and up to the beach at Solo Point. There they were greeted by Nisqually elders and tribal council members. Following protocol, each one requested permission from their Nisqually hosts to come ashore, and each was individually welcomed.
That night they shared meals and songs, as they do at each location, before leaving with the tide the next morning.
“It’s like a new experience every year,” Nisqually tribe member Shay Squally, 18, said.
She’s been participating in the journey since she was 8, and says each year she learns new songs and gets exposed to new cultures. She’s also pleased to be preserving her own heritage.
“It’s all about sobriety and bringing back what was taken from us,” she said.
Pullers on the canoes must be drug and alcohol free to participate. In fact, some of the journeys that served as precursors to the annual event were specifically designed in response to substance abuse issues among Native American youth. Young people were sent on canoe journeys where drugs and alcohol were impossible to obtain, giving each the chance to reconnect with traditional tribal values.
Among the fundamental themes of the journey is preserving tribal heritage, one that prompted Lenore Monohon, 83, of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, to participate in her first journey this year.
“I thought it was an experience that I should have,” she said.
Her father was among those sent to government-run schools designed to assimilate Indian children into American culture. Between the 1880s and the 1920s, these children were sent to schools where their traditional clothing, language and practices were forbidden. In many cases, Indian children were actually taken from their families and restricted from contact with anyone from their own culture.
Monohon wanted the chance to directly experience what was taken from her father, and though she didn’t pull the canoe through the water, her morning spent sitting in its bow was well worth the hours of discomfort.
“It was wonderful,” she said.
Looking back at the lives of their ancestors helps participants gain a sense of self, but the lessons they learn on the journey also help them look to the future.
“You learn how strong you really are mentally,” said Alan Frazier, who works for the Nisqually Tribe.
The days on the water can be beautiful, but they can also be long and hard with choppy waves or endless fog. Those are the days you have to remember to ask for blessings and help to make it through, Frazier said.
“Then you learn to apply that to your life,” he said. “Because the water is just like life.”
Marisa Petrich: firstname.lastname@example.org