Canoes, cultures, crowds

CELEBRATION OF TRIBES: Squaxins welcome visitors from across Northwest

rboone@theolympian.comJuly 30, 2012 

About 100 tribal canoes paddled into Budd Inlet on Sunday afternoon to mark the 2012 Canoe Journey, an annual gathering of tribes – mostly from the Northwest and British Columbia – who will now spend a week with the Squaxin Island Tribe of Kamilche in Mason County to celebrate their various cultures.

Sunday’s gathering attracted thousands to the Port of Olympia shoreline, with people filling grandstands or standing to observe the arrival between the KGY radio station and the port’s boat launch.

Canoes began arriving about 1 p.m. The canoes, surrounded by other pleasure craft dotting the inlet, passed by the waving, singing and drum-beating crowds, then lined up between two sets of buoys to wait for the other canoes to join them.

The first to arrive were those who traveled the farthest, such as the Bella Bella tribe of north British Columbia. Canadian tribes arrived first, followed eventually by South Sound tribes such as the Nisqually, and finally Squaxin Island tribal members, who arrived in two canoes, cheered on by the spectators.

About an hour into their arrival, things got interesting when a massive ship, the MV Hosanger, departed the port’s marine terminal with a tug escort and slowly made its way north up the inlet channel.

Except for a lone toot of a horn, the ship departed without incident.

Once all 98 canoes were in place, they approached the shore in groups of six or seven canoes, where they identified themselves and exchanged greetings with those on the shore. No one disembarked there; instead, they paddled over to the boat launch where the canoes were removed and loaded onto trailers for the trip to Kamilche.

Prior to the exchange of greetings, Gov. Chris Gregoire welcomed the various tribal members, representing more than 50 tribes, with a proclamation. She was followed by Olympia Mayor Stephen Buxbaum.

“Your journey is an inspiration to us all,” Buxbaum said.

Among those in the crowd were tribal members such as Sam Chester, 46, of the Ehattesaht tribe of north Vancouver Island. He said the Ehattesaht canoe had one of the longer journeys, spending 21 days at sea. The group paddled seven to 12 hours a day and visited various tribes on its way south.

The journey represents a time of healing for a lot of tribal members, Chester said, noting that it is a drug- and alcohol-free event.

Canoe journeys have been taking place since 1989, a time when regional tribes were getting back on their feet, forming tribal governments, developing businesses and welcoming their members home, said Leslie Johnson, one of several media coordinators for the event.

Johnson, a Puyallup who married into the Squaxins, said the canoe journeys were created to re-energize their members about their cultures.

“The canoe represents the strengthening of the culture,” she said.

Alan Parker, 69, of Olympia said he has attended several canoe journeys. Parker, who taught tribal government at The Evergreen State College before retiring in June, grew up on the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation in Montana, home to both the Chippewa and Cree tribes. Parker is Cree.

Cree do not have a canoe tradition, he said, although he still praised the event, calling it a “powerful symbol of the strength and beauty of the people.”

He also was pleased with the number of people who attended the canoe journey.

“It’s a tribute to Olympia that they are so supportive,” Parker said.

The weeklong celebration, also known as a potlatch, ends Aug. 5. 360-754-5403 @rolf_boone

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