A Tribal Canoe Journey Lands at the Lummi Nation Stommish Grounds in northern Washington state.
It was crowded. 114 ocean-going canoes, 15,000 people and many millennia of tradition all coming together in a huge colourful celebration at the Lummi Nation Stommish Grounds in northern Washington state. Paddle to Lummi 2019, the annual traditional Tribal Canoe Journey, drew indigenous canoe families from across the Pacific Northwest including Alaska, British Columbia and Washington. Appropriately, the Lummi are the Lhaq’temish, the People of the Sea.
With the bows nestled on the shore, each skipper, in turn, requested permission for their canoe to land, usually speaking some words in the Nation’s language, describing their journey, and thanking the generosity of their hosts.
One skipper said,
“All nine paddlers in front of me are my grandchildren. Five of them are on a healing journey for they have recently lost someone close to them. Please welcome them.”
Many of the women paddlers had red hands painted over their mouths honouring missing and murdered indigenous women. A huge crowd spread along the sun dappled shore.
A group of Lummi dignitaries including Chairman Jay Julius, other councillors and the Stommish Princess for 2019, Shoshanah Johnson, welcomed each canoe in turn, recognizing them and granting them permission to land.
The crew, helped by many willing hands, then carried the canoe to an area that soon resembled a crammed museum of ocean-going canoes. It was an impressive sight with long rows of large vessels with garlands over their bows and many flying flags.
I followed a large canoe with a white “Cowichan” painted on its side that had just received permission to land and was being pulled along the beach. Brittany Williams, a fit-looking paddler wearing a green Paddle to Lummi T-shirt said, “We’re from the Quw’utsun (Cowichan) First Nation from north of Victoria on Vancouver Island. We set out three days ago and, of the 14 paddlers,” she added proudly, “the only kid aboard was my daughter, aged nine. It was hard work, and I’ve got blisters to show for it.” Her favourite part, and there were many, was seeing the different First Nations. “Their songs and culture brought us all together.”
The farthest canoe came from the Tla-o-qui-aht (Clayoquot) First Nation from Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island. To reach Lummi, they paddled for 24 days!
Tony from Campbell River on the east coast of Vancouver Island, wearing an elegant hand-crafted cedar hat, sat in a massive canoe carved more than 30 years ago from a 600-year-old cedar tree. “Fifteen of us with ages ranging from 11 to the mid-70s from the We Wai Kum and We Wai Kai Nations spent five days paddling here from Nanaimo.” he said. “The canoe is named, K’eniqwala, meaning Lightning, and she weighs about 2,000 pounds.”
Even a Hawaiian outrigger canoe was among the arriving flotilla. Six Hawaiians were paddling, although their elegant, shiny canoe was built in Washington and the starting point was Neah Bay in the northwestern corner of the state.
Once all the canoes had been granted permission to land, dusk settled and the protocol ceremonies began. The Wexliem House (House of Frogs), a huge space built with enormous timbers like a big house and with bleachers along the two long walls, was packed. The opening ceremonies, which included a march-in with flags and the parading of shawls, were a reminder that Indigenous communities are recovering from centuries of oppression under colonization. The Tribal Canoe Journey, whose roots go back about three decades, is central to a resurgence and returning to enduring values and traditions.
The four themes of the event were reminders that Indigenous people still face difficult problems. The first and foremost theme was Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women, a tragic topic that was mentioned many times through the week. The other themes were the opioid crisis, which has hit the Lummi and other Nations hard, child welfare and the declining numbers of salmon, an indigenous lifeline.
Then each canoe family, joined by members of their Nation, took its turn dancing and singing to demonstrate their traditional ways. Drums thundered. Colourful regalia paraded through the big house. Children danced and mimicked their elders. One young man even proposed to his sweetheart. Each group finished by thanking the Lummi for receiving them so graciously, and then they gave many gifts as is traditionally done in potlatches.
That first day, dancing continued with fervour until the wee hours. Since it was important that each of the 114 canoe families have sufficient time for their presentation, the overall ceremony went on for several days and long into the nights. It was an incredible kaleidoscope of tradition, full of colourful dancing, singing and gift-giving. I’ll never forget it.