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Each year, thousands of pullers bring their canoes to the shores of host tribes’ beaches. Since its inception in 1989, Tribal Journeys has been hosted by Seattle, Bella Bella, La Push, Ahousaht, Lummi, Neah Bay and Quinault at Taholah, to name a few. This Pacific Northwestern tradition brings together Coast Tribes of diverse nationalities, as canoe families travel from as far as New Zealand to share in the pageantry, ceremony and athletic endeavor that is Tribal Journeys.
Canoe culture is about honor, dignity, self-respect and family. It hearkens back to ancestral ties. Said Gary Johnson, former chair of the Chinook tribe, “We know when that fog and mist comes in, that our ancestors are traveling in that fog, traveling with us, and all those people who have gone before us and have shown us the way.”
As much as you may have heard about this celebration of family and culture, what exactly is Tribal Journeys, and how do you get connected? Do you have to be Native American to participate in Tribal Journeys? And what should you expect when you’re planning to attend? Look no further, because this article should help you with Tribal Journeys 101.
1. What is Tribal Journeys?
In 1989, Paddle to Seattle celebrated the first annual celebration of centuries’ old traditions, with tribes coming from Alaska, British Columbia and fifteen different tribes. Paddle to Seattle, brought about by Elder Emett Oliver, brought back the canoe culture in our region of the world. Of the journey, Johnson said, “My first thought is that the canoe journey is all about teaching our youth and having our entire families here, and at this point it’s really something that we plan for and work at all year round, ‘cause it’s that important. It includes teaching song and drums and dancing, and these have all been handed down.”
Tony Johnson, the skipper of the Chinook family, noted, “This is creating a situation where the youth and people of our communities want to participate so much they’re willing to change their lives. We have expectations of people that the participants are gonna act a certain way, respect our traditions, not drink, do drugs, not abuse themselves or others. That’s what it’s really about. We know of our issues in Indian Country that we’ve inherited over the years, and I really believe that there’s nothing changing those things better than Tribal Journeys.”
2. How do you get connected? Do you have to be Native American to participate?
Indian Country is small, and with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other forms of social media, it gets smaller all the time. You don’t have to be Native American to participate in Canoe Journey, but you do need to be travelling with a Canoe Family. There are dozens, if not more than a hundred, Canoe Families along the coast in the areas of traditional canoe culture. They meet, often monthly, to practice songs, protocol and dances, and to discuss preparatory needs for the journey. Ask yourself why you want to go on the Journey, especially if you aren’t Indigenous, and how it will benefit yourself and others, then see if your local tribe has a Canoe Family. Families are extremely open and welcoming. Whether you are a baby, or eighty years old, there is always a role you can play in a Canoe Family, no matter your level of athleticism. You can prepare the food, drive the vehicles ahead of the pullers to set up the tents and camping areas, or you can do what I did, and be a writer and blogger.
3. What should you expect when planning for Tribal Journeys?
You should expect a difficult two-to-three weeks. If you’re a puller, which is someone who paddles in the canoe, your arms and legs and shoulders and butt will hurt. But when you get to each separate landing at each tribe and campground, you will be greeted by dozens of people singings songs to welcome you. You should expect not to be drinking or doing drugs. At the end of the journey, you will receive a hand-made bronze ring that you wear around your neck, which many participants wear year-round. Each successive year you complete a journey, you receive a glass bead to go next to your ring. It’s a huge honor to wear these and symbolizes years of clean living.
You should expect to have to push through hard times. The motto for Paddle to Quinault was Dig Deep, and that was something every participant, from young to old, had to continuously do. But if you go, it will certainly change your life.
After you finish the journey and land on the shore of the host tribe, there is a solid week of protocol, day and, night, non-stop, where you present your songs and dances to the hostntribe and watch the protocol of the other families. It is a time to celebrate, socialize, enjoy good food, good company, and relax after a long and happy journey.
And finally, here are the ten rules of Tribal Journeys!
1. EVERY STROKE WE TAKE IS ONE LESS WE HAVE TO MAKE
Keep going! Even against the most relentless wind or retrograde tide, somehow a canoe moves forward. This mystery can only be explained by the fact that each pull forward is a real movement and not a delusion.
2. THERE IS TO BE NO ABUSE OF SELF OR OTHERS
Respect and trust cannot exist in anger. It has to be thrown overboard, so the sea can cleanse it. It has to be washed off the hands and cast into the air, so the stars can take care of it. We always look back at the shallows we pulled through, amazed at how powerful we thought those dangers were.
3. BE FLEXIBLE
The adaptable animal survives. If you get tired, ship your paddle and rest. If you get hungry, put in on the beach and eat a few oysters. If you can’t figure out one way to make it, do something new. When the wind confronts you, sometimes you’re supposed to go the other way.
4. THE GIFT OF EACH ENRICHES ALL
Every story is important. The bow, the stern, the skipper, the power puller in the middle – everyone is part of the movement. The elder sits in her cedar at the front, singing her paddle song, praying for us all. The weary paddler resting is still ballast. And there is always that time when the crew needs some joke, some remark, some silence to keep going, and the least likely person provides.
5. WE ALL PULL AND SUPPORT EACH OTHER
Nothing occurs in isolation. When we aren’t in the family of a canoe, we are not ready for whatever comes. The family can argue, mock, ignore each other at its worst, but that family will never let itself sink. A canoe that lets itself sink is certainly wiser never to leave the beach. When we know that we are not alone in our actions, we also know we are lifted up by everyone else.
6. A HUNGRY PERSON HAS NO CHARITY
Always nourish yourself. The bitter person, thinking that sacrifice means self-destruction, shares mostly anger. A paddler who doesn’t eat at the feasts doesn’t have enough strength to paddle in the morning. Take that sandwich they throw at you at 2 a.m.! The gift of who you are only enters the world when you are strong enough to own it.
7. EXPERIENCES ARE NOT ENHANCED THROUGH CRITICISM
Who we are, how we are, what we do, why we continue, flourish with tolerance. The canoe fellows who are grim go one way. The men and women who find the lightest flow may sometimes go slow, but when they arrive they can still sing. And they have gone all over the sea, into the air with the seagulls, under the curve of the wave with the dolphin and down to the whispering shells, under the continental shelf. Withdrawing the blame acknowledges how wonderful a part if it all every one of us really is.
8. THE JOURNEY IS WHAT WE ENJOY
Although the start is exciting and the conclusion gratefully achieved, it is the long, steady process we remember. Being part of the journey requires great preparation; being done with a journey requires great awareness; being on the journey, we are much more than ourselves. We are part of the movement of life. We have a destination, and for once our will is pure, our goal is to go on.
9. A GOOD TEACHER ALLOWS THE STUDENT TO LEARN
We can berate each other, try to force each other to understand, or we can allow each paddler to gain awareness through the ongoing journey. Nothing sustains us like that sense of potential that we can deal with things. Each paddler learns to deal with the person in front, the person behind, the water, the air, the energy; the blessing of the eagle.
10. WHEN GIVEN ANY CHOICE AT ALL, BE A WORKER BEE – MAKE HONEY!
The Ten Rules of the Canoe were developed by the Quileute Canoe contingent for a Northwest Experimental Education Conference in 1990.
P.S. Never, NEVER call CANOE a “boat.” Them’s splashin’ words, friend. You might get thrown in the water, or get to dance, to clear the score.