A bridge made of water
August 3, 2012
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD -- The land that Joint Base Lewis-McChord is on is full of culture and story, but events like the July 26 Paddle to Squaxin 2012 Tribal Canoe Journey demonstrate how rich that culture is. Nearly 100 tribal canoes rowed to the shore of Solo Point to rest under welcome Pacific Northwest sun before the last leg of their long journey.
The Tribal Journey officially started in 1989, though some Nisqually elders say the tradition dates to the mid 1970s. It's a time when tribes from Alaska, British Columbia, Port Townsend, Wash., and from as far as New Zealand, travel up to 800 miles by canoe, sharing songs, dances, and food at each stop along the way.
"We're trying to get back to tradition and the waterways were how we traveled," Nisqually Archive Manager Joe Kalama said. "We're trying to bring that back and show our youth this is how our ancestors used to do it."
As Kalama described the event, one of the youths brings him a bowl of salmon stew -- one of the many dishes shared with the weary travelers still in their canoes, preparing to come ashore. The elders eat first from plates of food brought as a sign of respect by young tribe members.
Cynthia Iyall, tribal chair, said the purpose and meaning of the canoe journey was to offer a way for the tribe to carry on its traditions and culture, as well as to provide a positive outlet for those struggling with depression -- often related to alcohol and drugs abuse.
"When (the tribes are) working together, camping together, and canoeing together it really brings in that unity," she said. "It's a great opportunity for immersion in the culture -- to learn the dances and sing the songs. It's very, very positive."
As canoes approached the beach, the leaders of JBLM, Col. Thomas Brittain, the installation commander, and Col. Charles Hodges, the incoming commander, greeted the Nisqually tribe members.
When they landed, the traditional, ceremonial protocols began. Each canoe carried members from different tribes and families. Representatives from the visiting tribes formally requested to come ashore and each included common elements: they first spoke in their traditional language, repeating the phrases two times; they announced themselves and their village; and they declared that they came in peace, were tired and hungry from the journey, and wished to share songs and dances.
Tribal leaders took turns welcoming the rowers to rest and to share their food. Brittain, as JBLM's leader, took a turn in welcoming the canoe passengers from one of the villages.
The journey is just one of the ways in which the Nisqually and JBLM partner, said Billy Frank, Jr., chairman of the Northwest Fish Commission who is known for environmental and treaty rights activism.
"If (JBLM) wasn't here," Frank said, "the city of Tacoma would be right up and down the river."
Some of JBLM's training areas are also among the most sacred tribal spaces. As part of their treaty rights, the Nisqually still use these areas for ceremonies.
"The relationship with the military is strong and healthy," Frank said.