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Northwest tribes on way to Lummi during annual canoe journey

By Brian Contreras

The Seattle Times

Watch canoe families arrive in Birch Bay during Paddle to Nisqually

Members of the Haudenosaunee and Heiltsuk tribes arrive at Birch Bay State Park during the Paddle to Nisqually Canoe Journey on Tuesday, July 19, 2017. The Nooksack and Chilliwack tribes hosted them.
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Members of the Haudenosaunee and Heiltsuk tribes arrive at Birch Bay State Park during the Paddle to Nisqually Canoe Journey on Tuesday, July 19, 2017. The Nooksack and Chilliwack tribes hosted them.

The water was nearly calm as the canoes rounded Alki Point and came into view.

“The canoes are coming!” a young girl cried from the crowd of onlookers. “They’re right there!”

The 20-odd canoes approached Alki Beach just before noon Thursday, July 18, as part of the “Paddle to Lummi” – or Sqweshenet Tse Schelangen (“honoring our way of life”) – a journey through the Salish Sea toward the Lummi Nation, this year’s host. During the annual Tribal Canoe Journey, tribes and nations from throughout the Pacific Northwest join up with one another on the way toward Lummi, starting from different points but picking up new canoes along the way.

Paddlers are expected to arrive in Whatcom County Wednesday, July 24. The celebration will continue through Sunday, July 28, at the Lummi Nation Stommish Grounds, 2295 Lummi View Drive.

The journey is “about reclaiming some of our traditional practices, not only from the standpoint of physically being on the water with our traditional transport, but … the spiritual and cultural practices that are associated with doing so,” said Donny Stevenson, vice chairman of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe. “We’re all coastal peoples; that … connection with the waterways is a really, really, really strong part of our identity, and it’s at the core of who we are as indigenous people.”

The Lummi Nation says it expects 10,000 people and more than 100 canoes to ultimately arrive on its shores, at which point the participants will share in potlatch, with traditional song, dance and testimonies.

As the canoes arrive at the shore of a given night’s host, they will circle, pullers will ask permission to land and then the canoes will be carried onto the beach by hand, said Rachel Cushman, a councilwoman of the Chinook Indian Nation. The next morning, she added, they’ll ask permission to leave before heading off on the next leg of the journey.

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Members of the Samish tribe asks permission to come ashore during the 2007 Paddle to Lummi tribal canoe journey. This year, paddlers from Northwest tribes are expected to arrive in Whatcom County Wednesday, July 24. The Paddle to Lummi celebration will continue through Sunday, July 28, at the Lummi Nation Stommish Grounds. Elaine Thompson AP file

Once the canoes were on shore at Alki, pullers stuck around the beach or boarded buses that would take them back to the Muckleshoot Reservation for the night. There, Stevenson said, they would recognize both what unites them in shared coastal culture as well as what makes them unique as individual communities.

“We have our own traditional stories, we have our own traditional songs, we have our own traditional dances,” Stevenson said. “And really what you do during the course of the time that you come together off of the water is, you take the opportunity to share those things with your brother and sister tribal nations.”

“It bridges our traditions and teachings and history with who we are today, and it does so in a way that ensures that we have guaranteed protection of that identity into the future,” Stevenson said.

That guarantee hasn’t always been the case for the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, noted Cushman.

“For thousands of years we would visit one another for marriage, for gathering, for trade, for healing ceremony, and until the Native American Religious Freedom Act passed (in 19783), a lot of this way of being was prohibited by the U.S. government,” Cushman said. “And so in the ‘80s there was a resurgence … and this has been carrying forward since.”

The Bellingham Herald contributed to this story.

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