An inter-tribal gathering in Washington State brought together paddlers from across the Pacific Northwest last week, including local residents.
We Wai Kai Elder June Johnson, 73, described the trip as a healing journey.
“Everybody goes for a reason,” she said. “They go there for their own spiritual self.”
For Johnson, it was in honour of her sister Shirley Johnson, who died of cancer just before her departure.
It was also the first time that June Johnson’s son took part in the annual canoe trip, and she wanted to support him. Her group paddled for five to six hours daily.
“There were long days, but we did it,” Johnson said.
One canoe carried close to 14 members of We Wai Kai and Wei Wai Kum First Nations. They were supported by about 14 ground crew.
The canoe was accompanied by a motorboat for escort in case of emergency or to provide paddlers with a break, Johnson said.
They launched at Nanaimo on July 18 with several other First Nations. The end point of the annual journey changes each year, and this time it was Lummi, a community near Bellingham.
Violet Shade of Wei Wai Kum Nation was part of the land crew, serving as a driver, but she also spent some time on the water.
“I got to be in the canoe for the landing at Lummi, which was an amazing experience for me and all those who were on board,” Shade said.
Dozens of canoes from around the Pacific Northwest converged on Lummi on June 24. Wei Wai Kum Elder James Quatell, 70, described it as an inspiring scene.
“You’re there and you feel the energy from all of the pullers and all of the people, and all of that, as they keep coming and coming,” said Quatell, who has been taking part in the annual trip since 1993.
Paddlers stayed overnight at several First Nations along Vancouver Island, and then crossed to Waldron Island, just southeast of Saturna, before the last leg of the journey to the mainland.
Quatell praised the hosts at Lummi for accommodating everyone who took part.
“They made sure you got there, made sure you really got looked after,” he said.
The weather was good, except on the last day, when the skippers decided to have the canoes towed for safety reasons.
During their travels, there was a sense that ancestors were present and guiding them, Johnson said.
At each location along the way, the host nation would invite the paddlers ashore. Then the hosts would feed the paddlers, and the nations would perform dances in customary protocols. A gift was also offered to the hosts, Johnson said.
Other First Nations from the Campbell River area that took part in the journey included Homalco and Klahoose, Johnson said.
A major theme of the trip was teaching First Nations culture to young people. Some youth were part of the ground crew but paddled in at Lummi, Johnson said.
|Dozens of canoes converged at Lummi, Washington State, on July 24 for an inter-tribal gathering. Attendees included members of several First Nation from the Campbell River area. Photo courtesy June Johnson|
She said pride showed particularly on the faces of boys from Wei Wai Kum, We Wai Kai and ‘Namgis as they sang during the customary protocols at Lummi.
Cultural performances by nations from across the region went on for days, sometimes until 2 or 3 a.m., Quatell said.
“That’s what every community does, they show their respect by showing just a little bit from (their) community,” he said.
Many people wore red painted hand prints over their faces to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and attendees reportedly came from as far as Papua New Guinea and Australia.
Some 100 canoes were expected to take part in the journey. The trip offers nations a glimpse into the time before colonization, when the oceans served as highways from Alaska to California.
The event began in 1989 as the “Paddle to Seattle” to mark Washington State’s centennial. Next year, the cross-border event is slated to take place in Nanaimo.
-With files from Jesse Major/Peninsula Daily News and Cole Schisler/Nanaimo News Bulletin